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The government of Hugo Chávez should carry out a thorough and impartial investigation into the abduction and murder of four opposition supporters whose bodies were found on February 16 and 17, Human Rights Watch said today.

The circumstances strongly suggest that these were political killings," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "The government must launch a prompt and impartial investigation into this vicious crime, and must guarantee the safety of the reported witness to the killings."

Darwin Arguello, an army soldier, Angel Salas, a navy corporal, and Félix Pinto, an airman, were reportedly abducted together in Caracas during the night of February 15. The following day, police discovered Pinto's body and that of a twenty-eight-year-old woman, Zaida Perozo López, close to a highway in the state of Miranda, some forty kilometers east of Caracas.

The bodies of Arguello and Salas were discovered nearby a day later. All four had been bound, gagged with tape and shot repeatedly.

A fourteen-year-old girl, whose name has not been revealed, is believed to have witnessed at least one of the killings and to have been shot and left for dead. She is recovering in a hospital.

Arguello, Salas, and Pinto had joined a protest by dissident military officers against the Chávez government and had participated in opposition gatherings in the Plaza Altamira, a square where anti-Chávez activists have been camped for more than three months. Zaida Perozo is also reported to have frequented the square.

A witness to the abductions said that he had seen the victims being forced by men wearing ski-masks into two vehicles a short distance away from the Plaza Altamira.

The political situation in Venezuela remains tense in the wake of a two-month general strike called by the opposition Coordinadora Democrática, the business group Fedecámeras, and the country's largest union federation. President Chavez has rejected opposition demands for a constitutional reform to permit early elections, and has threatened tough measures against the strikers and against private television networks that supported the strike.

At least seven people have been killed and scores injured in street protests since December 2002, but there have been no confirmed reports of extrajudicial executions of opposition or government supporters.

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