Venezuela's Chavez grants amnesty in coup

CARACAS Mon Dec 31, 2007 7:24pm EST

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Monday he will pardon opponents accused of participating in a coup that ousted him briefly five years ago, a conciliatory move after a stinging electoral defeat this month.

Chavez said he would publish the law in a day or so to show the government did not persecute its political rivals.

"We want the path of peace. We want heated ideological and political debate but in peace," he said on state television.

It was not immediately clear how may people would benefit from the amnesty, which also wipes the legal slate for people involved in a shutdown of the South American nation's vital oil industry and smaller attacks on the government.

The left-wing Chavez has long faced fierce opposition from middle-class and wealthy sectors of society who have been sidelined by his policies, which are focused on the poor who make up the bulk of his supporters.

In 2002, a group of military officers and businessmen orchestrated a coup to force Chavez from power but he was reinstated days later after massive street marches in his favor.

Chavez opponents say people jailed for crimes related to the coup are political prisoners and accuse his government of persecuting those who signed a document supporting the short-live defacto rulers.

Chavez spent much of 2007 working on a political reform that would have allowed him to run for re-election indefinitely and given him sweeping powers to build a socialist state.

The plan was rejected in a referendum earlier this month. The opposition has since called for reconciliation.

The outspoken U.S.-critic is a former para-trooper who himself tried to take office through a failed coup in 1992. He was imprisoned and later pardoned and was elected president in 1999.

(Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; editing by Bill Trott)

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