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 Saturday, 25 January, 2003, 02:19 GMT
Venezuela's 'friends' unveil crisis plan
Pro-Chavez rally in Caracas on Thursday
Chavez put up a show of force before the Washington talks
The six-nation Group of Friends has agreed in Washington to send a high-level mission to Venezuela to try to end the country's political crisis, which is crippling its oil production.

Hugo Chavez
Chavez has refused to step down
US Secretary of State Colin Powell told his colleagues from Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Portugal, Spain that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez should either hold early elections or call a referendum on his leadership.

Venezuela, the world's fifth largest oil exporter, has been gripped by the eight-week strike, with the opposition demanding Mr Chavez to resign or call early polls.

Correspondents say the meeting reflects the growing international concern to find a way out of the Venezuelan crisis, but there is little immediate sign of a solution.

As a strategic supplier of fuel to the US, Washington is particularly keen to end the crisis.

The talks came after a day of violence in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, where one person was killed and at least 12 were wounded when a suspected bomb went off at a huge pro-government rally.

At least six people have been killed in clashes between Mr Chavez's supporters and opponents since the strike began last December.

Calls for restrain

The Group of Friends was formed last week to boost a so far unsuccessful mediation mission by the Organisation of American States (OAS).

Woman waits in queue for gasoline
The strike has crippled on oil and petrol output

Peace proposals presented by former US President Jimmy Carter at the group's first meeting were strongly supported by Mr Powell.

Mr Carter put two alternatives forward: either to let the country vote on a constitutional amendment that would allow early elections, or to wait until August - half-way through Mr Chavez's mandated office - when the constitution allows for a binding referendum on the president's mandate

Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim also spoke on the need for both the Venezuelan Government and the opposition to curb violence.

"The mission is going to discuss concrete measures like, for example how to diminish the risk of violence... and the process of moderating the rhetoric," Mr Amorim said.

The mission will go to Venezuela next week.

But correspondents say there is currently precious little trust between the Venezuelan Government and opposition.

They say that, at the moment, neither side appears prepared to give in.

Boost for Chavez

Opposition groups accuse Mr Chavez of behaving like a dictator and mismanaging the economy and have called on him to resign.

But Mr Chavez - who opinion polls say is supported by 30% of the population - was handed a victory on Wednesday when the Supreme Court postponed a referendum scheduled for 2 February, six months before a binding popular vote is due.

In a further boost to the president, there have been signs that the government has made some headway in breaking the oil stoppage.

Shipping data showed that oil exports in the seven days to Friday increased 62% to 688,000 barrels per day.

Before the strike, Venezuela exported almost 3m barrels per day.

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See also:

24 Jan 03 | Americas
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21 Jan 03 | Americas
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