It is the first time the two sides have worked in such close confines since the opposition
boycotted the 2005 elections, giving Chavez allies free reign to pass laws [Reuters]

Venezuelan legislators from the socialist party of President Hugo Chavez and their rivals have exchanged punches in parliament.

The fist-fight on Thursday began after Socialist party legislator Henry Ventura tried to remove an opposition member, Alfonso Marquina, from the speaker's podium.

The pair were soon joined by several other legislators and parliamentary employees who shoved and punched one another for several minutes.

"We came to work in peace, like we always do, and we hope that we are not subject to aggression for the words we say, like we were just now," Nicolas Maduro, the foreign minister, said.

The brawl was broadcast live on all Venezuela's television and radio stations via an obligatory link-up system used frequently by Chavez to air his long speeches to the nation.

The broadcast was pulled abruptly from most networks after the violence started.

Venezuelans are deeply divided by the leftist president's programme to build a socialist society in the South American country of 28 million people.

Chavez's popularity will be put to the test in a 2012 presidential election when he will run again.

The new National Assembly was formed in January after elections that returned a significant number of opposition legislators after a five-year absence.

It is the first time the two sides have worked in such close confines since the opposition boycotted parliamentary elections in 2005, giving Chavez allies free rein to pass laws.

Although the new parliament has given the opposition a platform for its views, it has been effectively neutered by Chavez, who was granted decree powers in December to fast-track laws without parliamentary approval for 18 months.

Source: Agencies