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CARACAS, Venezuela-Venezuelan military officers, blaming President Hugo Chavez for the deaths of at least 10 people in an anti-Chavez protest broken up by violence, forced him to resign Friday and ushered in a transition government led by a civilian business chief.
The dramatic events in the world's fourth biggest oil exporter sent shock waves through oil and debt markets and ended the turbulent three-year rule of one of the most colorful and controversial leaders on the international scene.
"The country is entering a new stage," said Pedro Carmona, the president of Venezuela's leading business association Fedecamaras, who was named to head a transition government to lead the country to new elections. He pledged to maintain a democratic, pluralist system and the rule of law.
Chavez, a 47-year-old firebrand former paratrooper, resigned early Friday under pressure from senior armed forces officers who had lost patience with his confrontational leadership style and left-wing populist politics.
The final straw was the killing Thursday by suspected pro-Chavez gunmen of at least 10 people in violence which erupted during a huge protest march in downtown Caracas calling for the resignation of the president.
The final toll was expected to rise as bodies were still being picked up from the streets of Caracas overnight, officials said. The streets were quiet Friday as citizens digested the events of the night and the day before.
In the first world reaction to Chavez's ouster, the United States and European Union president Spain called for democracy to be maintained in Latin America's fourth biggest economy.
"We are following very closely what's happening. Our interests are in democracy and democratic institutions," a U.S. State Department official, traveling with Secretary of State Colin Powell in the Middle East, said.
CHAVEZ IN CUSTODY
"We are going to start the process of transition straight away today," Gen. Luis Camacho Kairuz, who had served as Vice-Minister for Security under Chavez, said.
He and Carmona pledged that those responsible for what they called Thursday's "terrible crimes", in which more than 100 people were injured, would be brought to justice.
The military move against Chavez followed scenes of bloody and chaotic violence in Caracas Thursday in which rooftop snipers opened fire against tens of thousands of anti-Chavez protesters, sending panic-stricken people diving for cover.
Chavez, wearing a camouflage uniform and a red paratrooper's beret, left the Miraflores presidential palace early Friday and was driven away in a black government car to armed forces headquarters in Caracas, witnesses said.
A small group of aides and supporters applauded as Chavez left, accompanied by two ministers. But he arrived head bowed and grim-faced at Fuerte Tiuna military headquarters.
"The president was asked to resign from his post and he accepted," outgoing armed forces chief Gen. Lucas Rincon told a news conference broadcast live on national television.
"Have faith in your armed forces," Rincon said. He appealed to the Venezuelan people to stay calm and avoid violence.
"All of the country is under the control of the national armed forces," Camacho, a National Guard general, said. "The (Chavez) government has abandoned its functions."
Chavez came to fame as a young army officer by leading an abortive coup in 1992 and won a landslide presidential election victory in 1998, with overwhelming popular support.
After easily winning a referendum for a new constitution, he was re-elected in a 2000 election he called to revalidate his self-proclaimed "Bolivarian Revolution," named after Venezuela's 19th century independence hero and designed to help the country's poor majority.
His term had been due to expire in 2006.
HUNT FOR GUNMEN
Police and state security officers late Thursday raided homes and buildings linked to the pro-Chavez mayor of Caracas' Libertador district, Freddy Bernal, searching for arms and the gunmen who carried out Thursday's shootings.
Camacho said security forces were hunting for Bernal and members of the so-called Bolivarian Circles, pro-government neighborhood groups set up by Chavez which critics said had carried out violent attacks on opponents of his government.
The senior military officers expressed outrage at what they called the "massacre" of unarmed civilians in Thursday's protest that they blamed on the president and his supporters.
They said Chavez's wife, Marisabel, had been allowed to fly to her hometown of Barquisimeto for "humanitarian" reasons.
Oil prices fell Friday after Chavez's departure from office prompted speculation of an end to an oil workers' protest that had disrupted the country's petroleum exports.
Thursday's violence erupted after half a million Venezuelans marched to the palace in a huge protest that marked the most powerful challenge to Chavez's rule.
The shooting broke out as Chavez was giving a broadcast, carried on all national television and radio channels, in which he criticized as "irresponsible" and "subversive" an indefinite general strike called by business and labor opponents who organized Thursday's protest march.
The labor and business shutdown, combined with a continuing protest by staff of the state oil giant PDVSA, sapped economic activity and disrupted oil operations in the country.
Chavez had announced he was taking off the air three private television channels he said were involved in a plot to topple his government.
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