CARACAS – Pro-government and opposition lawmakers came to blows Thursday during a session of the Venezuelan National Assembly devoted to questioning of several of leftist President Hugo Chavez’s ministers.
Tension had been building since Jan. 5, when the winners of last fall’s legislative elections assumed their seats.
Due to an opposition boycott of the 2005 balloting, the previous legislature was overwhelmingly dominated by Chavez supporters, but foes of the president hold around 40 percent of the seats in the new assembly.
Thursday’s session turned nasty after opposition member Alfonso Marquina walked to the podium to protest heckling from Chavez supporters in the gallery.
Marquina was confronted by ruling-party lawmaker Henry Ventura and they began arguing.
At one point, Ventura grabbed Marquina’s shirt and shoved him, according to opposition member Miguel Pizarro, who said the two men then began exchanging punches.
The fight soon expanded to include legislators from both the government and opposition benches, Pizarro said.
The live nationwide broadcast of the National Assembly debate was abruptly cut off within seconds of the start of the brawl.
“In the face of the opposition violence in the AN (assembly) we found ourselves obliged to go off the air. The people ask for discussion, not more fighting,” Communications Minister Andres Izarra said on Twitter.
Prior to resuming the session, the assembly speaker called on spectators to remain silent.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, who led the Cabinet delegation, then asked opposition members “to tone down the aggressiveness a little,” but drew a chorus of boos.