Venezuela investigates alleged plot to kill Chavez

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela on Thursday interrogated military officers named in recordings of an apparent plan to kill President Hugo Chavez, in what may the firmest evidence in years of a barracks plot to oust him.

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Ministers and legislators rallied to denounce the alleged plan with a flurry of news conferences. Chavez, a former paratrooper believed to have a tight grip on the army, talks frequently of plots against him but rarely produces evidence.

During a live broadcast shown on all television stations, Chavez played audio recordings he said were of retired officers discussing their infiltration of military bases and ways to kill the president. The recordings first appeared on a Venezuelan television program late on Wednesday.

On one tape, a voice ascribed to retired air force Gen. Eduardo Baez calls for a united effort to remove Chavez from the Miraflores presidential palace.

“If he’s in (the palace), all our efforts must be there,” the voice says. “When he arrives from a trip, either blow him up, capture him with airborne planes, or with troops when he arrives.”

Chavez was ousted briefly in a coup six years ago but massive street protests put him back in office. He is popular with soldiers for spending more on equipment, but some are dubious of his bid to bring socialism to the armed forces.

He regularly accuses Washington of plotting his overthrow and this week let Russian bombers land in Venezuela as part of a drive to weaken U.S. influence in Latin America.

“This is not isolated, this is part of an international context,” he said of the alleged plot against him. “Behind these retired soldiers is the desperate political opposition, behind (them) is the North American empire.”

Washington, which initially welcomed the 2002 coup against him, firmly denies trying to remove Chavez from power through undemocratic means.

In the recordings, the men talk about how they won over commanders in some military bases to their plot. It was not clear how advanced the suspected plan was or if it had much support.

The government did not reveal how old the recordings were. The defense minister said officers were being questioned.

Venezuela has a history of military conspiracies, with Chavez himself trying to take power in a 1992 coup that failed when his men failed to kill the president.

Chavez is particularly wary of coups and assassination attempts and often travels with a heavy contingent of bodyguards. He is believed to wear bulletproof clothing.

He linked the tapes to violent protests in Bolivia and recent accusations of a coup plan in Paraguay.

In Bolivia on Wednesday, Chavez ally President Evo Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador, accusing him of helping anti-government protests in some regions.

Editing by Saul Hudson and Peter Cooney