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Chavez takes over police

President Hugo Chavez ordered the federal takeover of the Caracas police force Saturday, sending soldiers and armored vehicles to stations throughout the capital. His opponents vowed to block the move and mounted street protests.

Thousands jammed a central highway, while other Venezuelans demonstrated in city streets. The police chief refused to resign and the man appointed by the Chavez government to replace him refused the post.

Citizens gathered outside at least one police station, banging pots to protest Chavez's move and yelling "Get out!" at soldiers in armored vehicles who aimed their rifles at the building.

It wasn't clear by late Saturday night if Chavez's takeover order had been fully carried out. But the move overshadowed efforts by the Organization of American States to broker a democratic solution to the increasingly violent conflict between Chavez and the opposition in a major oil supplier to the United States.

The government was taking "exceptional and provisional" command of the 9,000-strong police force to end a 1{-month dispute among officers, said Alcides Rondon, Chavez's deputy citizen security minister. He cited laws that allow government intervention in times of crisis.

The move only heightened political tensions in Venezuela, a major U.S. oil supplier. Chavez's opponents say he must step down, and both sides have repeatedly held mass protests in the capital.

Interior Minister Diosdado Cabello said city police would share their duties with the National Guard, but opposition mayors and state governors with jurisdiction over parts of Caracas vowed to ignore an army order for "mixed" police patrols.

After Chavez moved to take control of the capital city's police Saturday, opponents and the ousted police chief said they would try to block the takeover.

The government said it had to move to end the dispute between police officers that has lasted 47 days. Pro-Chavez police Sgt. Jorge Alvarado seized a key precinct in Caracas in October to stop opposition Mayor Alfredo Pena from forcing him into retirement.

On Wednesday, the government sent 2,000 soldiers into the streets, a day after police officers clashed with each other and Chavez supporters. Two people were killed and dozens wounded.

Opposition leaders claim the move is aimed at neutralizing Pena, a major Chavez adversary. Chavez has repeatedly claimed Pena is plotting a coup with opposition leaders.

Rondon appointed Emigdio Delgado as new director of the force, replacing Henry Vivas, who had been named by Pena. But Delgado recognized Vivas as the legitimate director of the police force and said he wouldn't take the post.

Later, Rondon appointed commissioner Gonzalo Sanchez as new chief.

The officers who seized the key precinct in Caracas rejected Delgado's unexpected resignation and vowed to ignore orders handed down by Vivas.

Rondon told reporters the National Guard was being deployed in Cotiza to maintain public order.

"The intervention continues. The police force is leaderless right now and this power vacuum is being filled by my presence here, until a new chief is appointed," said Rondon. He said a new chief would be named soon.

Pena urged dissident officers to give up control of the precinct, which serves as the police force's communications center and arms deposit, "to avoid a bloodbath."

Pena called the intervention "a coup ordered by Chavez" and vowed to challenge the measure at the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the nation's highest court.

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