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Chavez solidarity for Syrian leader

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has expressed support for Syria's president, calling him a "humanist" and a "brother" facing a wave of violent protests backed by the United States and its allies.

Mr Chavez's support for President Bashar Assad follows his defence of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who is fighting rebels backed by international airstrikes.

Venezuela's socialist leader accused Washington of fomenting the protests in Syria as a pretext for Libya-style airstrikes.

"Now some supposed political protest movements have begun (in Syria), a few deaths ... and now they are accusing the president of killing his people and later the Yankees will come to bomb the people to save them," Mr Chavez said in a televised speech.

The anti-government protests erupted nationwide in Syria on Friday, and follow unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya in what has been called the Arab Spring.

Mr Chavez has developed close ties to Gaddafi and Mr Assad over the years.

"How cynical is the new format the empire has invented, to generate violent conflict, generate blood in a country, to later bombard it, intervene and take over its natural resources and convert it into a colony," he said. Mr Chavez often refers to the United States as the empire.

Mr Chavez said he spoke to Mr Assad late on Friday and referred him as our "brother".

Syria's administration has promised increased freedoms for discontented citizens and increased pay and benefits for state workers - a familiar package of incentives offered by other nervous Arab regimes in recent weeks.

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