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Opposition, election body differ on Venezuela vote audit

Venezuela's opposition leader Henrique Capriles gestures as he arrives at a news conference in Caracas April 18, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia
Venezuela's opposition leader Henrique Capriles gestures as he arrives at a news conference in Caracas April 18, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia

By Daniel Wallis and Deisy Buitrago

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition and electoral authority expressed on Saturday widely differing expectations for an audit of the contested April 14 presidential election, a day after Nicolas Maduro was sworn in to succeed the late Hugo Chavez.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who says there were thousands of irregularities, wants a manual recount of all ballots cast in the vote, but has accepted the electoral body's decision to carry out a more limited electronic audit.

That move by the National Electoral Council's (CNE), the night before Maduro's inauguration, helped calm tensions after the government said opposition-led protests killed eight people and both sides accused the other of potting more violence.

The opposition said on Saturday that the audit, which is expected to take a month, must examine all aspects of the vote.

Official results showed Maduro winning by less than 2 percentage points in a much closer race than had been expected for the presidency of the OPEC nation with the biggest oil reserves in the world.

"This is going to be a long process ... and our people have to stay alert," Carlos Ocariz, national director of Capriles' team, told a news conference. "We want to know the truth. Once we see what happened last Sunday, a new phase can begin."

Ocariz said an opinion poll showed a majority of Venezuelans supported the call for a manual vote-by-vote recount, a more comprehensive review than the authorities agreed to conduct.

He also denounced what he said were cases of state employees being persecuted over suspicions they voted for the opposition.

Meanwhile, the CNE sought to temper the hopes of Capriles supporters that the audit will produce a different outcome.

"We will not let something that aims to verify whether the system worked be turned into a sort of public impeachment that tries to question the results," CNE rector Sandra Oblitas told reporters at the council's headquarters.

"As always, when the CNE announces results to the country, it is because they are irreversible."

The body's president, Tibisay Lucena, has also cautioned against anyone raising "false expectations" from the audit.

On Thursday, the electoral authority said it would widen to 100 percent an audit of electronic votes from a previous audit on election day that reviewed 54 percent of the machines.

Venezuelans vote electronically, but the machines also print out paper receipts of each vote that are kept in boxes. The audit involves counting the paper ballots at some stations to ensure they are consistent with the machine-tallied results.

MADURO SWORN IN

Maduro, a burly former bus driver whom Chavez named as his preferred successor before dying from cancer last month, was sworn in on Friday at a ceremony in Caracas attended by heads of state including the leaders of Brazil, Argentina, Cuba and Iran.

In his first speech as president, Maduro paid homage to his late boss, and at times seemed to reach out to the opposition. "I'm ready to talk even with the devil," he said.

At other times, the 50-year-old revived his combative language from the campaign trail, condemning his rivals as fascists who wanted chaos and had tried to unseat him in a coup.

As well as welcoming high profile guests such as Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff to his inauguration, Maduro has also received the backing of South America's Unasur bloc of nations, whose leaders met in Peru the night before the ceremony.

Among the presidents who flew on to Venezuela after debating the post-election dispute was Argentina's Cristina Fernandez, who on Saturday visited the hilltop military museum in Caracas where the marble sarcophagus of her close friend and ally Chavez is on display.

"I felt a knot in my stomach and my eyes filled with tears," she said on Twitter, describing how loudspeakers in the museum played a recording of Chavez singing the national anthem.

Fernandez's vocal support for Maduro brought a sharp response from Capriles, who says Chavez frittered away Venezuelans' birthright by "gifting" oil revenue to political allies through subsidized fuel supplies and other aid.

"Has Argentina's president brought a check for the millions of dollars she owes the Venezuelan people?" he asked on Twitter.

"It is the people who funded Senora Cristina's election campaign ... To those who are visiting Venezuela and owe us, we ask you to PAY! Those resources belong to the people."

(Additional reporting by Pablo Garibian; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Paul Simao)

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