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Venezuelans rally en masse for Chavez challenger

Supporters of opposition leader Henrique Capriles have held a mass rally in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas. The rally comes a day after three pro-Capriles activists were shot dead by unidentified gunmen.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans rallied to support presidential contender Henrique Capriles in the streets of Caracas on Sunday, just a week before the centrist governor will face off against incumbent Hugo Chavez in the South American nation's presidential election on October 7.

According to Capriles' Primero Justicia (Justice First) party, Chavez loyalists had blocked a motorcade of opposition activists in the western Barinas state on Saturday, when gunmen in a passing van shot and killed three Capriles supporters.

"Yesterday, sadly, violence took three lives, something that should never have happened," Capriles told the rally in Caracas on Sunday. "I want to tell their families and those angels in heaven, that we are going to defeat violence on the 7th of October."

'Not with violence'

Chavez called for peace in the aftermath of the shootings. The government said on Saturday that it had launched an investigation into what it called an isolated incident.

"It's not with violence that we face off," said Chavez during a rally in western Zulia province. "It's with votes, ideas, peace, so let's not fall into provocations"

Venezuela is awash with arms and has a high murder rate, with 50 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants recorded in 2011. Voters have cited violent crime as one of their primary concerns in the run up to the October 7 election.

The campaign trial

Although a majority of Venezuela's six best-known pollsters put Chavez ahead by up to 10 points, two polls give Capriles a slight lead over the 14-year incumbent. In the 2006 election, Chavez defeated his opponent with 63 percent of the vote.

Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, has criticized Chavez for Venezuela's high crime rate, power blackouts and shoddy infrastructure. The opposition leader has proposed a Brazilian-style economic model that combines a pro-business government with strong social welfare policies.

"I ask you, the Venezuelan people, to judge: who is part of the process of change," said Capriles during his Sunday rally. "And who was sickened by power, clung to it and deceived the Venezuelan people?"

Chavez, for his part, has labeled Capriles as a right-wing, capitalist elitist. The incumbent president, who has battled two bouts of cancer since 2011, has promised to "deepen" socialism if he wins another six-year term.

"The first thing we are going to do with our victory is something like put a lockdown on what we have achieved, to prevent any going backwards," Chavez said in an interview with state TV. "That would be terrible."

slk/ch (AFP, Reuters)