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Chavez opponent talks tough on foreign policy

Supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez hold up an image of him during a campaign caravan from Barinas to Caracas, in Sabaneta, Venezuela, Monday, Oct. 1, 2012.

Rodrigo Abd/AP

Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles pledged to help Colombia in its peace talks with rebels and distance himself from Iran should he defeat President Hugo Chavez in an increasingly tight race leading up to Sunday's election.

The government of neighbouring Colombia is about to start talks with Marxist FARC guerrillas this month in Oslo to try to end five decades of conflict. Mr. Chavez's government, accused by Bogota of backing the rebels in the past, supports the talks.

That has led to speculation that an opposition victory in Venezuela on Oct. 7 could damage prospects for peace in Colombia. But Mr. Capriles denied that was the case.

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"A government led by us would accelerate the Colombia peace process. A progressive government in Venezuela will stop being a refuge for rebels, for armed groups," he told a news conference in Caracas on Monday.

"We have a government that is an accomplice of the Colombian guerrillas. That will change."

Mr. Capriles, who has mounted the strongest electoral challenge Mr. Chavez has faced during his 14 years in power, recently met Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Bogota.

The opposition candidate also said that if he won he would demand the freedom of some 30 Venezuelans kidnapped in Colombia and end any direct contacts with the rebels so as to not confuse the negotiations.

Among the half-a-dozen or so major pollsters in Venezuela, most put Mr. Chavez ahead. But Mr. Capriles has been creeping up thanks to an energetic campaign, and two surveys give him a slight edge.

The 40-year-old governor, who would be Venezuela's youngest president if he won, also said he would steer foreign relations away from Mr. Chavez's alliances with nations such as Iran and Belarus that the West views with suspicion.

"What do we have in common with Iran apart from producing oil? Or Belarus?" Mr. Capriles asked. "Isn't its president a dictator? You tell me! We honoured [late Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi twice. Are those the relations Venezuelans want? No!"

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Mr. Capriles said he would also try to sit down with Cuban President Raul Castro to review the presence of more than 40,000 Cuban workers who are in Venezuela in exchange for oil supplies.

"And I've told the Russian ambassador here that we are going to stop buying weapons from Russia," he added, referring to Mr. Chavez's multibillion-dollar arms purchases from Moscow.

The 58-year-old socialist president has been stepping up his campaign in recent days despite still recovering from three cancer operations since June, 2011.

Later on Monday, he was due to hold a rally in his rural hometown of Sabaneta – in Barinas state in the Venezuelan savannah – in a nod to his humble roots that have made him so loved by the poor.

Three pro-Capriles activists were shot and killed at a rally in Barinas on the weekend, underlining the potential for violence in a polarized nation awash with guns.

Western investors hope the more business-friendly Mr. Capriles will end a nationalization drive and other leftist policies that have divided Venezuela and turned Mr. Chavez into one of the world's most controversial leaders.

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Mr. Chavez has directed much of the OPEC member's oil revenue to social-welfare projects, such as subsidized food stores and programs that make cash payments to poor families with children.

With Venezuelans fearful of protests if the election outcome is disputed, Mr. Chavez has been warning that Mr. Capriles's camp is preparing acts of violence. Opposition activists, meanwhile, say they are worried that the President may refuse to step down if he loses.

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