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CARACAS, Venezuela - Hugo Chavez was freed by his military captors and returned to reclaim the Venezuelan presidency Sunday, in a dramatic restoration of power two days after he was forced from office by army commanders.
Chavez stepped down from a helicopter, smiled and raised his fist in triumph as he greeted hundreds of cheering supporters outside the Miraflores presidential palace. Thousands in the street beyond began singing the Venezuelan national anthem.
His return shortly after 3 a.m. followed the resignation of Pedro Carmona, who stepped down amid violent protests after just one day in office as interim president of Venezuela, the No. 3 supplier of oil to the United States.
The Bush administration, which showed no remorse when the Venezuelan military ousted the country's elected president last week, appealed Sunday for the restoration of "the essential elements" of democracy after Hugo Perez reclaimed his office.
"We are concerned about the situation and are watching carefully as events unfold," State Department spokesman Frederick Jones said. "We continue to call on all elements to avoid violence and seek ways to engage peacefully to resolve this crisis."
Chavez's vice president, Diosdado Cabello, had declared himself acting president until Chavez's return from military custody. He appeared healthy and hugged supporters as a military band played.
Chavez's family, supporters and former government officials insisted he never resigned as president, as Carmona and Venezuela's high command claimed.
"Today we are celebrating a new democracy," said one man who took a microphone to greet Chavez.
Chavez is a former army paratrooper who led a failed 1992 coup but was elected in 1998 on an anti-poverty platform. His term was to end in 2006.
Chavez's strongest support was among Venezuela's poor, though over time his once huge popularity dwindled as he clashed with many of the country's sectors in his bid to impose a "revolution" he said aimed to end corruption.
He alienated the United States with his ties to Cuban President Fidel Castro and Iraq, and angered Venezuela's business community by decreeing laws they said were anti-business.
The military said Chavez resigned Friday hours after generals arrested him for allegedly ordering gunmen to fire on a massive opposition protest on Thursday. Fourteen died and hundreds were wounded in the melee.
After Carmona resigned Saturday, Chavez's attorney general, Isaias Rodriguez, told Carmona's ministers they were under arrest pending possible charges.
"They must take responsibility. They will be put on trial with all their rights, but they will be put on trial," Cabello said. Some military officials also would be tried for military rebellion, he said.
Tens of thousands of people surrounded the presidential palace Sunday after news of Carmona's resignation. They set off powerful fireworks as they waited for Chavez's anticipated return from military custody.
"Chavez is coming! Chavez is coming!" said Dario Fereira, an unemployed man wearing a tattered shirt.
Chavez administration officials - many of whom had evaded dozens of police raids under Carmona's brief reign - and loyalist military officers hugged each other in the palace's marble-floored courtyard.
"In these past two days they have persecuted us," said Rafael Ramirez, president of the state-run national gasoline company.
Unshaved and with red-rimmed eyes, Ramirez said he had hidden in friend's homes after Chavez's arrest on Friday. Asked about the turnaround, Ramirez said: "It's marvelous because the Venezuelan people responded to this illegal coup attempt."
Chavez's labor minister, Maria Cristina Iglesias, said Chavez was kept on Orchila Island off the Venezuelan coast.
Just hours earlier, interim president Carmona - a businessman and co-leader of a general strike called last week against Chavez - announced he had resigned. Carmona was named president by the military high command.
"We have every right to protest, but they are gunning us down out there," said Edgar Paredes, his clothes soaked in blood as he brought his wounded brother to a hospital. He didn't know who shot Luis, and probably never will. Like most violent demonstrations here, gunfire can erupt from any side, at any time.
Demonstrators supporting Chavez - or opposed to the way he was ousted - forced Carmona to step down. The commander of a strategic air base in the central city of Maracay rebelled Saturday, setting in motion nationwide protests demanding Chavez's return.
Thousands took to the streets, taking over state TV, to demand that Chavez be reinstalled. Signaling a split in the armed forces, several military commanders refused to accept Carmona's appointment.
Some Latin American leaders denounced Friday's irregular transition of power. The United States said Chavez was responsible for his own ouster because of attempts to violently suppress a Thursday opposition demonstration in which gunmen fired upon a 150,000-strong march.
Thursday's march capped a general strike called to support oil executives who were protesting a Chavez-appointed board of directors at the state oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela.
A work slowdown by the executives severely cut production and exports in Venezuela.
At the palace, supporters displayed a huge poster of Chavez lit by floodlights. A military brass band stood at the ready. Red-bereted soldiers with automatic rifles paced through the hallways; others pumped their fists and egged on the crowd.
"Chavistas" seized the state-run TV station late Saturday. Even as gunfire rattled downtown streets, pro-Chavez lawmaker Juan Barreto praised the "peaceful insurrection" that called for Chavez's return.
Bowing to a demand by restive army commanders, Carmona said earlier Saturday that Chavez would be allowed to leave the country. He promised to reinstate the country's National Assembly, which he dissolved on Friday, along with the Constitution, Supreme Court, and other institutions.
Carmona also lost the support of the 1 million-member Venezuelan Workers Confederation, which co-led last week's general strike, after Carmona decide to dissolve Congress, said confederation director Jesus Urbietta.
At least 20 disturbances were reported in Caracas on Saturday. Unrest also was reported in the cities of Maracay, Guarenas, Los Teques and Coro. Police fought pitched battles with Chavez supporters in the western Caracas slum of Catia, a Chavez stronghold.
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