Venezuela tense after vote, deadly demos

Tensions ran high in Venezuela Wednesday in the wake of deadly demonstrations sparked by a disputed weekend election in which Hugo Chavez's hand-picked leftist heir won by a razor-thin margin.

The Supreme Court said a manual recount of ballots demanded by the defeated candidate would be impossible because voting has been computerized since 1999, as the United States sided with the opposition in calling for a new tally.

Supporters of the late Chavez and his oil-funded social programs planned a rally under the nose of opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the loser of Sunday's vote, outside his residence in northern Miranda state.

Each side has accused the other of stoking violence after the special election in oil-rich Venezuela. Seven people died on Monday, mainly in big cities, where Capriles did well.

But he lost to ruling party candidate Nicolas Maduro by just under two percentage points, and wants a full recount, alleging irregularities.

The election board says no, and Maduro, 50, a former bus driver who worked his way up in politics and spent a decade in Chavez's shadow, is to be sworn in Friday to complete the late leader's six-year term, which began January 10.

The government stepped up pressure on Capriles to give up and concede defeat, and said 15 countries have now confirmed they will send delegations to attend Maduro's swearing in. Many countries in Latin America have said they recognize Maduro as the victor, except Paraguay, which wants a recount.

"There is no other option but to recognize that victory," Information Minister Ernesto Villegas told a news conference Tuesday night, in an allusion to Capriles' refusal to throw in the towel.

Villegas denied there was anything fishy in the voting.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the US government -- long the target of Chavez's ire -- is not yet ready to recognize Maduro, telling lawmakers: "We think there ought to be a recount."

But Venezuela's chief justice Luisa Estela Morales told a press conference Wednesday that such a recount was legally impossible, a ruling that could further heighten tensions.

The White House meanwhile called on the government to protect the rights of free speech and assembly, and warned against more post-election violence.

The European Union said it took note of the Maduro win but said Capriles' complaints should be examined by the government.

Overnight, opposition supporters banged pots and pans -- a typical protest in Latin America -- and pro-government demonstrators set off firecrackers. But there was nothing like Monday's violence, which also left more than 60 hurt.

Chavez, a bombastic figure who dominated political life in his country and the Latin American left for more than a decade, irritating the United States by supporting countries like Iran, Syria and Cuba, died of cancer last month.

On Tuesday, Capriles called off a protest rally he had convened for Wednesday, saying he did not want more violence, or to play to into the government's hands, and said he was open to dialogue.

He also warned that he had a close eye on Wednesday's Chavista demo in Los Teques, where he lives.

"If anything happens to me at the official residence in Los Teques, I hold Nicolas Maduro responsible," Capriles tweeted.

On Tuesday he called for dialogue and asked Maduro to help calm the situation in country, which has the world's largest proven oil reserves, but Maduro has not publicly addressed the offer.

Maduro did tweet back to his opponent about street demos, saying he had information that right-wing groups were "arming" people disguised in the bright red colors of the Chavez movement, and that he had alerted the police.

"I call on the people to isolate fascists and violent people wherever they are," said Maduro. "Peace, peace," he added.

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