CARACAS (Reuters) - Police moved into a Caracas slum on Saturday to separate rival supporters of President Hugo Chavez and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles during the latest flare-up of Venezuela’s volatile election campaign.
Aides for Capriles, who is seeking to unseat the socialist leader in an October 7 vote, said three opposition supporters were slightly injured after stone-throwing gangs tried to stop him entering the hillside La Vega neighborhood.
“I’m not going round Venezuela looking for a fight with anyone,” Capriles said, denouncing the police blockade as a violation of his rights under Venezuela’s election law.
“I am not going to confront those officers. In a few months, I will be their boss. ... These obstacles and abuses only give me more strength to overcome the darkness on October 7.”
The energetic 39-year-old former state governor is basing his campaign on a grass-roots tour of Venezuela, seeking to make a contrast with Chavez, who has been relying more on TV appearances following a year of fighting cancer.
He is particularly targeting pro-Chavez areas, and has run into trouble before in poor Caracas neighborhoods where guns proliferate and the president has his most militant supporters.
Government officials said hooded Capriles supporters were planning to cause trouble in La Vega. One man was arrested, and two guns confiscated, Information Minister Andres Izarra said.
“The professional intervention of the police prevented the opposition violence,” he said via Twitter.
Underlying the polarization of Venezuelan politics, images from the scene showed a crowd of red-shirted “Chavistas” separated from Capriles’ own supporters by scores of police.
State media said opposition supporters tossed eggs, bottles and stones during the fracas.
Chavez, 57, has a double-digit lead in most polls ahead of the presidential ballot, but one recent survey put the candidates neck and neck. Both sides exude confidence of a win.
The stakes are high not only for Venezuela, a nation of 29 million people with the largest oil reserves in the world, but for the wider region. Leftist allies such as Cuba and Nicaragua depend on Chavez’s oil-financed largesse toward them.
Although staying generally quiet, Washington is watching closely to see whether its No. 1 irritant in the region wins re-election or exits the political stage after nearly 14 years of attacking U.S. officials.
In a speech to supporters on Friday night, Chavez mocked Capriles as a “loser” and “non-entity” who was walking and cycling round Venezuela in a fruitless campaign.
The center-left Capriles, who hails Brazil’s mix of free-market economics and strong welfare policies as his model, abandoned his usually more moderate language to taunt Chavez back on Saturday.
“I’m telling you clearly, Chavez, whatever you do, your time is over brother,” he said. “Venezuela is waking up.”
Earlier in the year, shots were fired when Capriles took his campaign to another poor Caracas neighborhood, Cotiza. Both sides blamed each other for the violence.
Another opposition leader, Maria Corina Machado, had shots fired at her entourage in November while campaigning in a Caracas shantytown ahead of the opposition Democratic Unity coalition’s primary that Capriles won in February.