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People load trucks with the belongings of evicted Tower of David (in the background) residents in Caracas July 22, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Silva(reuters_tickers)
By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - An abandoned Caracas skyscraper dubbed the world's tallest shanty-town after a squatters' takeover could be demolished once its inhabitants are out, Venezuela's leader said on Wednesday.
Soldiers and officials began this week moving out the first 160 of more than 1,150 families living inside the 45-story "Tower of David" in central Caracas. They are going to government-provided low-income housing outside the capital.
"The Tower of David is famous. It's a symbol of a strange situation, a vertical 'barrio,'" President Nicolas Maduro said. "It was viewed negatively by society. We resolved it, as these things should be resolved, with dialogue and understanding."
Originally intended to be a bank centre but left unfinished in 1994, the vast concrete skeleton was viewed by many Venezuelans as a focus for crime and symbol of property "invasions." Police occasionally raided it hunting kidnappers.
The squatters said the tower was a safe refuge from dangerous slums and something of a model community. They built carefully divided apartments and established shops and services inside, bricking up holes to keep children safe.
The tower fascinated foreigners: An exhibition about it won a prize at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, and it even showed up as a backdrop to an episode of U.S. TV drama "Homeland," as the place where on-the-run terrorist suspect Nicholas Brody was captured.
Maduro said it was an error to let people live so long in such a precarious structure, where some people died falling off ledges. The state is studying various options for the tower.
"Some are proposing its demolition. Others are proposing turning it into an economic centre. Some are proposing building homes there," Maduro told reporters.
"We're going to open a debate ... If we demolish it, it's to build something new for the local community."
Maduro's minister for the transformation of Caracas, Ernesto Villegas, said he leaned towards demolition of the building because it was a monument to a "bourgeois" past before the 1999-2013 rule of socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
In a second day of frenetic activity at the tower, residents hauled down sofas, beds and other belongings, and soldiers helped them load trucks heading to their new homes.
The squatters said they were leaving voluntarily after advance meetings and guarantees of new apartments.
Local media have speculated the tower could be sold to Chinese investors and turned into a bank centre. There was no reference to such a plan, however, during this week's visit to Caracas by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)