CARACAS, Venezuela — Secret police swooped in on an anti-government demonstration Saturday in a failed attempt to arrest a national strike leader who emerged from hiding to address the rally.
The police fired shots into the air and launched tear gas canisters to disperse anti-government protesters, who smashed police vehicle windows with sticks and stones, the television station Globovision reported. There were no immediate reports of injuries or arrests.
Police rushed to the rally trying to seize former oil executive Juan Fernandez, one of several leaders of a failed two-month general strike aiming to force President Hugo Chavez's resignation or early elections. The strike ended Feb. 4.
Fernandez warned Chavez to "pack his bag because we are going to get rid of him" and then was whisked away by supporters as protesters applauded wildly.
Thousands of protesters waving placards reading, "No to judicial terrorism!" blocked a Caracas highway to demand justice in Venezuela and show support for opposition leaders. One of the leaders, businessman Carlos Fernandez, is under house arrest and several others are in hiding.
At an International Women's Day event Saturday, Chavez accused his foes of committing high-profile crimes — including last month's bombing of Colombian and Spanish diplomatic missions in Caracas — in an attempt to smear his government. No one has been arrested for the blasts.
"By God and my mother, there will be justice!" Chavez roared. Chavez also praised last week's arrest of a man for the killings of three dissident soldiers and an anti-government activist whose bound, tortured bodies were found last month. Tayro Aristiguieta, who was arrested in a Caracas slum, confessed to the killings, Chavez said.
Detectives said the killings were not politically motivated, although protesters said they believe the government was behind the slayings.
Also Saturday, soldiers were sent into the streets to launch a new government food distribution program, selling discount staples at open air markets in poor neighborhoods nationwide.
The initiative comes ahead of predicted food shortages, as opposition producers say they cannot continue operating under the government's new price controls. Fixed prices for basic goods like meat, rice and medicines were introduced as inflation — fueled by a rapidly devaluating bolivar currency — threatened to spiral out of control. Inflation reached 8.3 percent in January and February. The strike was strongest in the oil industry, the source of half of government revenues and 80 percent of export earnings.
Venezuela was the world's fifth-largest oil exporter before the strike began Dec. 2, producing 3.2 million barrels a day. Chavez said this week production was up to 2.6 million barrels a day, while fired managers say daily output was at 1.9 million.
The Organization of American States and other mediators have so far failed to advance peace talks.
The opposition claims Chavez has undermined the country's democracy and hurt the economy.
Chavez, who was first elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000, says his foes want to replace him with the old status quo, when an elite minority held power for decades.