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Venezuelan Coup Leader Goes Into Exile

CARACAS, Venezuela, May 29 (UPI) -- Venezuelan business leader Pedro Carmona, who briefly replaced President Hugo Chavez after mid-April's military coup, went into exile in Colombia Wednesday.

Carmona had been under house arrest since Chavez's triumphant return to power on April 14 and was facing a judicial investigation into his role in the short-lived coup.

The 62-year-old dodged guards outside his Caracas residence last Thursday after learning that Venezuela's Appeals Court had decided he should await trial in prison. Carmona was facing charges of rebellion and the usurpation of official functions. He is to date the only civilian to have been charged with offenses arising from the failed coup.

The former interim president made his way to the Colombian Embassy, where he claimed political asylum on the grounds that he was the victim of a political campaign and was unlikely to receive a fair trial.

The Colombian government agreed Sunday to accept Carmona's request and Chavez reluctantly provided Carmona with a safe conduct pass Monday, which allowed him to leave the Colombian ambassador's residence without being arrested.

A Colombian air force plane took Carmona to Bogota Wednesday morning. It is not clear if he will remain permanently in Colombia or whether he will seek to move to another country in the next few days. A group of Mexican businesspeople has reportedly already invited him to live in Mexico as their guest.

Chavez said Monday that international law and diplomatic usage forced him to grant Carmona a safe conduct out of the country, but that he still considered the coup leader to be a "prisoner on the run."

"He is on the run from Venezuelan justice and that is how he will be treated by our government and by the people until he accepts his responsibility," Chavez said.

Chavez also promised an investigation into how the elderly businessman had managed to escape from the custody of Venezuela's special police force, the Disip.

"What we have to do is take action against those people who were guarding him and who allowed him to leave his house. That is where we were to blame," he said.

Despite his evident annoyance at Carmona's high-profile escape, the Venezuelan president has handled the issue of Carmona's request for asylum in Colombia with unusual sensitivity and he was careful not to criticize the neighboring country's decision.

"By reaching the Colombian Embassy, he was already on Colombian soil and the Colombian government then has the total right to decide whether or not to grant his request. They did and so we are obliged to give him the safe conduct and let him go," Chavez said.

Carmona's request placed the Colombian government in a difficult position at a time when Colombian-Venezuelan relations are at a low ebb in the wake of unsubstantiated rumors that have linked Chavez's 'social revolutionary' government with Colombia's leftist rebels.

Both governments praised the level of cooperation between the two sides during the week of negotiations following Carmona's request, and there are hopes that the incident could actually serve to strengthen relations.

Chavez became one of the first foreign heads of state to congratulate Colombia's President-elect Alvaro Uribe after his landslide election victory Sunday, and he promised Venezuela will cooperate fully with the incoming Colombian government.

Since his restoration to power in mid-April, Chavez has largely moderated his previously outspoken style and has made a number of concessions in the hope of reducing political tension in the divided country.

The president has replaced several unpopular ministers and appointed a new compromise board at state oil producer PDVSA. Chavez's reforms have, however, failed to win over many opponents, who remain unconvinced he is sincere.

The disastrous state of the Venezuelan economy, which contracted 4.2 percent in the first quarter of 2002, is also likely to further jeopardize the government's chances of surviving until the end of its mandate in 2005.


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