CARACAS Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez defended his socialist government's security record on Thursday, rejecting pre-election claims by the opposition that crime had risen sharply during his 11 years in power.
Rampant murders, kidnappings and robberies are the top concern of voters who are due to cast ballots in a September 26 legislative poll that is being seen as an important test of his support ahead of a presidential election in 2012.
The government has not published official murder statistics in years, but opposition parties in South America's biggest oil exporter echo non-governmental organizations that say it is one of the world's most dangerous places outside war zones.
"It is not true Venezuela is one of the most insecure countries in the world, nor is it true there is more violence here than 11 years ago," Chavez said in a televised speech.
Figures from the police's forensic science unit show that between 1998 and 2005, homicides increased by about 120 percent to 9,944 murders per year. Non-governmental groups say that figure rose to between 13,000 and 16,000 murders last year.
Chavez often accuses his political opponents of stoking voters' fears of crime through propaganda in an attempt to tarnish the achievements of his socialist "revolution."
He says the creation of a new police force and other anti-crime measures have born fruit, and government officials were angered by a New York Times article last week that said the capital Caracas was more dangerous than Baghdad, Iraq.
"It is incredible ... to say what the opposition keep repeating every day, that Venezuela is more insecure than Iraq," a visibly annoyed Chavez said in the speech, broadcast from the opening of a power plant in western Zulia state.
"What is true is that the issue of crime is a tough one," he added, without providing official figures to rebut the ones from non-governmental groups that have made front-page news.
Analysts expect his ruling socialist party to retain a majority at this month's polls, but say the opposition is forecast to win at least one-third of the seats in parliament.
(Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Eric Beech)