Victims of Venezuela's Caracazo clashes reburied

A  policeman shoots a shotgun to a crowd in a neighborhood to prevent lootings and sackings by people protesting rises in transport fares in Caracas, Venezuela on 28 February 1989 The Venezuelan capital saw several days of violent unrest

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Exactly 22 years after violent clashes between police and protesters killed hundreds of people in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, some of the victims have been reburied in a special monument in the city's biggest cemetery.

The bloody clashes in February 1989 became known as the Caracazo - literally the big one in Caracas - as security forces loyal to the then president Carlos Andres Perez cracked down on protesters demonstrating over price rises.

Official figures put the number killed at around 300, but some reports suggested as many as 3,000 people lost their lives.

Many were buried anonymously in mass graves, making it impossible to be certain of the number.

Men beside niches for exhumed bodies The reburial was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the protests

The 71 laid to rest on Sunday had originally been buried in a communal grave in a section of the capital's general cemetery known as "the Plague".

Their remains were exhumed in 2009 and taken to a military base where they were checked to verify that they dated from the Caracazo.

President Hugo Chavez, who has called the incident a "massacre", timed the reburial to coincide with the anniversary of the protests.

His government built a special pantheon in homage all the victims of the Caracazo, and a neat row of white marble niches in which to rebury the 71 exhumed bodies.

Under cloudy skies a few hundred people gathered at the cemetery for the commemoration.

Pantheon built as memorial for victims The Caracazo is condemned but some think the government uses the anniversary for political mileage

"We will never again allow any police officer or public servant to act as they did during the Caracazo," Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz told the crowd.

But many families who are still trying to find out what happened to their loved ones feel they have had little help from the current administration.

"Always around this time in February there are investigations or someone is charged, but the rest of the year we don't see them doing anything," said Aura Liscano, whose brother Juan Miguel disappeared during the Caracazo.

A 21-year-old accountancy student, he went out to play basketball in the afternoon but never came home. His body has never been found.

Politically exploited?
People line up to buy food in Catia, a shanty town in western Caracas, as soldiers stand guard on the third consecutive day of riots on 1 March 1989 Campaigners stress that no one has ever been convicted over the events 1989

This year, in the run-up to the anniversary, the government took out full page, colour advertisements in newspapers, condemning the Caracazo and stressing that it would never happen under the current administration.

"On 27 February 1989, the people rebelled against neo-liberalism and were cruelly repressed. Never again will the will of the people be betrayed," the notices read.

While the Caracazo is widely condemned, some think that the government uses the anniversary for political mileage.

People looking at the Caracazo memorial Many families are still trying to find out what happened to their loved ones

"(The reburials) highlight how little attention was paid at the time to the people who were killed but given the highly polarised nature of Venezuela and the context of upcoming presidential elections, this could be seen as opportunistic," said Fernando Coronil, a Venezuelan anthropology professor at the City University of New York.

In 2009, the former Defence Minister, Italo del Valle Alliegro, was charged in relation to the protests and earlier this month the Attorney General's office also charged two other high-ranking former army officials.

But campaigners stress that no one has ever been convicted over the events of February 1989 and the trial process is much too slow.

Lawyer Liliana Ortega has led the fight for justice for the families of dozens of victims over the last 22 years.

"It seems there's no political will to sentence anyone over this," she said.

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