CARACAS: Venezuelan lawmakers punched, kicked and shoved one another as a postelection conflict between President Hugo Chavez's heirs and rivals blew up into a brawl on the floor of congress.
Tuesday night's clash erupted when members of the opposition coalition unfurled a banner in the National Assembly denouncing a ruling that strips them of most legislative powers unless they recognize the April 14 election victory of President Nicolas Maduro.
Assembly member Julio Borges appeared on an independent television station soon after Tuesday night's brawl with blood running down one side of his swollen face. The opposition said at least 17 of its allies and five pro-government deputies were injured.
Opposition lawmaker Ismael Garcia said government loyalists threw the first punches. Pro-government legislators appeared on state TV accusing opposition members of attacking them. Video showed groups of legislators shoving and pushing each other on the floor.
The opposition has refused to accept Maduro's narrow victory, saying the government's 1.49 percent margin resulted from fraud, including votes cast in the names of the thousands of dead people found on current voting rolls.
In retaliation, the government-dominated assembly has barred opposition lawmakers from public speaking and sitting on legislative committees.
Both sides planned to take to the streets of Caracas on Wednesday for marches celebrating International Workers' Day. Each appeared to be trying to avoid confrontation by choosing separate locations and calling for peaceful demonstrations, although fears of violence were running high.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles is boycotting an official audit of the election and plans to file a challenge seeking to overturn it in court.
On Tuesday, legislator Pedro Carreno, head of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela in the National Assembly, asked for an extension of the ban on public speaking by the opposition, whose members unfurled a banner reading "coup against the parliament."
"Without a word, like cowards, they came at us from behind," said Garcia, the opposition lawmaker.
Maduro accused the opposition of provoking the violence, which he condemned and called on the country to work out its disputes peacefully.
National Assembly chief Diosdado Cabello, considered one of the most powerful men in the country for his ties to the business community and army, has repeatedly defended barring opposition lawmakers from speaking. He said that if they don't recognize the legitimacy of the presidential election, they are casting doubt on the national electoral system that elected them, thus losing their own legitimacy.
The opposition lawmakers have also lost their seats on legislative commissions.
Carreno described government backers' action in the fight as self-defense.
"If I'm standing here and you come to attack me, it's likely that I'll react, but it's the aggressor who went out with a black eye," he said.