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Anti-Chavez students return with protests

CARACAS, Jan 21 (Reuters) - An opposition student movement is back at the center of Venezuela’s political stage with small but high-profile protests against a proposal that would let leftist President Hugo Chavez run for re-election.

Student activism was credited with helping to defeat a previous attempt in 2007 to lift a two-term limit on presidents that would have allowed Chavez to stay in power as long as he kept winning elections.

Chavez, a strident critic of the United States who has pursued a socialist agenda of nationalizing various industries in the oil-producing country, was elected in 1998 and again in 2006. The next presidential election will be held in 2012.

In the run-up to a Feb. 15 national referendum on whether to lift the term limits, small groups of university students have grabbed headlines by clashing with police in recent days.

“We are here because, by presenting a new reform, the government is once again disrespecting the Venezuelan constitution,” youth leader Manuela Bolivar said in front of riot police at a protest.

Opinion polls in December showed public opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment outweighing support by about 10 percentage points, although pollsters expect the gap to close as Chavez campaigns heavily in coming weeks.

As a way of motivating his supporters to vote, Chavez often takes advantage of political tension and accuses opponents of conspiring against him.

He has responded angrily to the student movement, calling it part of a U.S.-inspired plot to destabilize Venezuela and urging police to break up the protests by “rich kids” at the first sign of trouble.

Police used tear gas against opposition students on Tuesday after they were denied a march permit and against another group on Wednesday for blocking a street. Venezuelan media reported scuffles between police and demonstrators around the country.

A police officer in the western city of Merida was wounded by a gunshot that came from inside the compound of a university where opposition students had been demonstrating earlier in the day, the interior minister said.

MAJOR MARCH ON FRIDAY

Opposition students have promised a major march on Friday to the headquarters of the electoral authority that is likely to draw clashes with both police and Chavez supporters.

The loose coalition of anti-Chavez students that formed in 2007 helped to give new energy to Venezuela’s fractured opposition movement but largely vanished last year, with some leaders accepting posts in political parties.

As the opposition students return to the spotlight, pro-government students have also taken to the streets. In the past, rival groups have ended up in battles marked by tear gas and occasional gun fire.

In the latest incidents, government television has shown opposition demonstrators outfitted in gas masks and plastic shields throwing rocks and apparently setting fire to a national park that borders the north side of Caracas.

The government accuses the students of provoking violence, while the opposition leaders say the government has used excessive police force against protesters. (Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by John O’Callaghan)

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