Killings of three boys spark protest

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Protesters enraged by the killings of three boys in a ransom kidnapping took to the streets Thursday accusing President Hugo Chavez of inaction against rampant crime, saying he has divided Venezuelans with his frequent tirades.

The anti-crime protests have put the government on the defensive, as officials have pledged sweeping police reforms while accusing opponents of trying to use the situation for political gain.

“Venezuela is bleeding,” said Martha Lucia Varon, 50, marching with about 500 people to the Justice Ministry to demand a crackdown on rampant violent crime.

“Chavez took it upon himself to divide Venezuelans,” said Varon, a working-class housewife who accused Chavez of aggravating tensions between rich and poor by lashing out at his wealthy opponents.

She and other protesters faced off with troops in riot gear, and sang the national anthem.

Some 300 protesters also marched Thursday to demand justice in the slaying of Jorge Aguirre, a photographer for the newspaper El Mundo who was shot Wednesday by an unidentified man on a motorcycle while on his way to a protest.

The protests erupted Wednesday after the slayings of the three Faddoul brothers – John, 17, Kevin, 13, and Jason, 12, with dual Canadian-Venezuelan citizenship – whose bullet-ridden bodies were found more than a month after they were kidnapped. Authorities are investigating whether police were involved, and suspect it could also be the work of an organized crime network.

Gladys Diab, the boys’ mother, had harsh words for Chavez in a phone interview with Venezuelan channel RCTV.

“I want to say to the leader of the republic that by passing over this and failing to give importance to the torture and killing of four people… I, Gladys Diab, publicly announce: I abhor you,” she said before a cremation ceremony for her sons.

Officials expressed condolences to the family, and Justice Minister Jesse Chacon announced a commission to consider police reforms. Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto said he was appointing a National Guard general as his new police chief.

Information Minister Willian Lara, meanwhile, accused Chavez foes of trying to capitalize on the protests and criticized the opposition-aligned news media for what he called irresponsible reporting meant to stir unrest.

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