by Juan Forero,
April 21, 2002
CARACAS, Venezuela, April 20 - Four Venezuelan generals, including the newly appointed commander of the air force, died Friday evening when the military helicopter they were traveling in crashed in fog-shrouded mountains just north of here, military officials said today.
The military said the crash, which killed 10 members of the military, appeared to be an accident caused by bad weather. But it is certain to serve as a setback in the government's efforts to reorganize a splintered armed forces, whose military high commanders withdrew support for President Hugo Chávez during antigovernment protests a little more than a week ago.
Mr. Chávez was temporarily deposed but returned to power two days later with the help of officers loyal to him. Since he regained his post, he has been reorganizing the armed forces to ensure that he is surrounded by officers he can trust.
Four of those commanders died, though, when the Super Puma helicopter ferrying them from a ceremony at the naval academy on the Caribbean coast crashed on Friday.
Among the 10 members of the military who died were Gen. Luis Acevedo, who became the new air force chief on Wednesday, and three air force generals - Pedro Torres, chief of operations; Rafael Quintana, chief of personnel, and Julio Ochoa, a member of the air force's high command.
"It is a blow because he has to find Chavista officers like them and perhaps now he does not find them very easily," said Mario Ivan Carratu, a retired vice admiral and former director of the Institute for National Defense Studies in Caracas.
The crash, in the heavily forested Ávila mountain range, comes at a time when the military is under heavy scrutiny for its role in Mr. Chávez's ouster. The government has said that it considers the president's removal a military-backed coup, and the secretary general of the Organization of American States said on Wednesday that military officers should stay away from politics.
"This is very difficult and painful for all of us," said Gen. Gustavo Romero, commander of aerial defense.
On Friday, five high-ranking officers brought to court for their role in the ouster insisted that their withdrawal of support for Mr. Chávez was aimed at weakening a government that was on the verge of massacring anti-Chávez protesters. The officers, who are under house arrest, denied that their actions constituted an organized coup.
Gen. Lucas Rincón, commander of the armed forces, said the military would carefully investigate the circumstances of the crash. General Rincón had been returning to Caracas from the ceremony in a separate helicopter about the same time as General Acevedo's helicopter crashed.
He said that his helicopter also encountered difficult conditions and poor visibility, and that the pilot made an emergency landing to avoid an accident.
General Rincón said the pilot carrying General Acevedo may have been attempting maneuvers to find a clearing on which to land, and "in one of those maneuvers, with visibility blocked, he crashed against the mountain."