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Chávez says attack on ballot rival foiled

Purpose of plan was to thwart vote

CARACAS -- President Hugo Chávez yesterday said during a marathon news conference that authorities had foiled a planned sniper attack against his main opponent in this weekend's elections.

As campaigning ended ahead of Sunday's vote, Chávez said "fascist" militants had planned to use a rifle with a telescopic sight to shoot Manuel Rosales during a speech and blame it on Chávez's government in hopes of derailing the balloting.

"It was to say that Chávez sent them to kill him, and generate chaos," Chávez told reporters at the presidential palace.

The Venezuelan leader used the 3 1/2-hour news conference to laud achievements of his "people's revolution" -- citing statistics on lowered unemployment, a deep drop in poverty and petroleum-fueled economic growth.

He even quoted analysts from major foreign banks as saying the most dangerous scenario for this politically polarized country would be a Chávez election loss.

On the alleged assassination plot, Chávez said authorities had seized the rifle from a vehicle and that a military officer had been arrested.

He did not offer further details but a high-ranking military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not unauthorized to talk to reporters, said a naval officer was under investigation.

Rosales's campaign said it had no knowledge of the plan.

"This is a smoke screen. It's to manipulate the people, but nobody believes that," said Timoteao Zambrano, one of Rosales's campaign managers.

"The government is obliged to safeguard the lives of all Venezuelans, and that includes the presidential candidate," Zambrano said. "If something were to happen to our candidate, the government would be responsible."

Campaigning ended yesterday. Rosales supporters cite polls indicated that Sunday's balloting will be tight, although an independent AP-Ipsos survey and other recent polls found Chávez with a large lead.

Rosales has called the vote a choice between democracy and an increasingly authoritarian Cuba-style system.

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