The situation created by the ouster of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías threatens human rights and the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Venezuelan police have reportedly begun searching the buildings of Chávez supporters for weapons in response to reports that Chávez supporters have been arming themselves.

"We call upon the transitional authorities in Venezuela to restore the country's democratic institutions as soon as possible and to guarantee that the human rights of Venezuelans will not be violated, regardless of their political beliefs or affiliations," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned that President Chávez may not have left office voluntarily, but rather that he may have been forced to leave by military commanders, outside of a democratic, participatory process," he added.

According to press reports, President Hugo Chávez Frías left office under pressure by the Venezuelan armed forces early Friday morning. He is currently held by the military on an army base in Caracas. Pedro Carmona Estanga, head of Venezuela's largest business association, Fedecámaras, announced that he would head a transitional government.

Human Rights Watch has also received information that pressure was mounted on President Chávez to resign after a number of civilians were killed and dozens of others were wounded in downtown Caracas Thursday during a political protest by members of the opposition. The protest followed a three-day general strike that began Tuesday.

Human Rights Watch urged the Venezuelan authorities to conduct a thorough, impartial investigation immediately to determine who is responsible for the killing and injuring of civilians that occurred during the political protest in Caracas Thursday night, and to hold those responsible accountable.

"Human Rights Watch is concerned for the potential abuse of power by the Venezuelan authorities with respect to the searches they may be conducting," said Vivanco. "We call on the authorities to ensure that any searches or possible detentions of Chávez supporters be conducted in full compliance with the law and with the basic standards of due process."