By Gilles Trequesser
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pledged Sunday to investigate reports of alleged human rights abuses in the aftermath of last month's devastating mudslides, charges he first dismissed as irresponsible.
The president said he had already started personally investigating the allegations, a dramatic reversal of his initial stance strongly challenging the credibility of local human rights groups and media reports.
''Nobody can take justice into his own hands,'' Chavez said in his weekly radio program, adding he would not rest until each of the reported violations had been fully investigated and those responsible brought to trial.
Human rights organizations Provea and Cofavic said they had received at least 20 reports of summary executions by troops in the Caribbean state of Vargas, ravaged in mid-December by flash floods and mudslides. The government said up to 30,000 people may have died in the country's worst-ever natural disaster.
Chavez, a retired military officer, initially blasted as ''totally superficial'' and ''irresponsible'' the Provea report. He also questioned an article in the leading daily El Nacional that used anonymous testimony in a report about soldiers allegedly beating a suspected rapist to death.
Human rights leaders deplored the former paratrooper's initial reaction and the issue turned into a political minefield for the outspoken president who has made a point of promoting human rights since taking office a year ago.
Possible Mass Grave
Saying his comments ''may have been misinterpreted,'' Chavez disclosed Sunday that he traveled Saturday to Vargas to meet a resident who said he saw state security agents abducting his nephew from his home.
A report on the abduction published in El Nacional Saturday said Roberto Hernandez, 37, who reportedly was shot during the Dec. 23 incident, had not been seen since.
Chavez, who took along on the trip the journalist who wrote the article, Vanessa Davies, said he talked to various people and took copious notes of the charges.
''What matters is the truth not (newspapers) headlines,'' he said. ''I'll have no rest until we reach the bottom (of the allegations), I swear ... if I am president for one thing it is to defend human rights.''
Looting was rife in Vargas in the first days after the mudslides. Shops were ransacked and apartment buildings broken into, amid reports of delinquents raping women and troops being told to shoot on sight during a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
Chavez said he also checked during his visit a report of an alleged mass grave where security forces dumped people.
''A young man said he saw like a mass grave, they were shooting people then throwing lime over the bodies,'' he said.
The site to which he was taken was cordoned off and he said he would ask the Attorney General to conduct an inquiry.
''I'm not going to dig myself ... but if and when they recover the first body I'll go ... and I promise to find the ones responsible, whoever they may be,'' he said.
Provea cited testimony that said presumed looters were forced to kneel and then shot to death by soldiers.
Its report contained accounts -- which Reuters reporters also heard -- from people who said they overheard soldiers plotting to ''eliminate'' looters and common criminals and of residents being beaten by troops as they tried to salvage belongings from their flood-damaged homes.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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