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Tuesday, 10 December, 2002, 04:00 GMT
Venezuela officials 'ready for talks'
The opposition wants elections by April
Venezuela's Government appears to be ready to make concessions to the opposition forces who have mounted a general strike aimed at removing President Hugo Chavez.

According to mediators, the government has offered to discuss a timetable for early elections - a key opposition demand when the strike began nine days ago.

Passenger waits for flight news at Caracas's strike-bound international airport
The strike has dragged on for eight days
The strike has brought the country's crucial oil production and exports to a near standstill, threatening to severely damage the economy.

On Monday, National Guard troops took control of oil distribution centres and were deployed around petrol stations, where long queues of people waited to fill their cars.

Several international airlines have said say they may stop flying to Venezuela - the world's fifth largest oil exporter - in case their planes are unable to refuel.

Panic buying has caused scarcity of basic foods at supermarkets and cash machines are reported to have been emptied by worried account holders.

Strikers' conditions

Talks between opposition groups and the government resumed this weekend - they had been suspended when the strike began last week.


This government is far from fighting corruption and poverty

Leonardo Velasco, Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela

The Secretary-General of the Organisation of American States, Cesar Gaviria, who is mediating at the talks, said the government had agreed to work on an electoral timetable in the course of the next session.

Mr Gaviria said the opposition umbrella group, Democratic Co-ordinator, had agreed to consider the proposal.

But the group insisted it was only acceptable if it entailed elections in the first quarter of next year.

Opposition leaders had earlier said the strike would continue indefinitely until the president resigned.

Late on Monday, groups loyal to President Chavez are reported to have attacked several media organisations in the capital, Caracas.

A similar stoppage last April led to violence on the streets, and forced President Hugo Chavez to briefly stand down under pressure from the country's armed forces.

Penalty threat

On Monday, the head of the state-run oil company, Ali Rodriguez, said the country faced a national disaster, with petroleum exports paralysed and refineries coming to a standstill.

Enlarge image
Show map

Click above to see Venezuela's oil export terminals

He also warned the country could face a $6bn penalty for failing to honour its export contracts this month.

Striking oil executives say that production, normally three million barrels a day, is down by as much as 90%.

Industry experts say that even if the strike ended immediately, it could take weeks for oil production to return to normal because refineries take time to restart.

Shoppers panic

Correspondents say the effects of the strike are being felt ever more widely in Venezuela.

Many schools and businesses in the capital, Caracas, and other major cities remain closed, and domestic airline pilots and aluminium workers are the latest to join the stoppage.

Shops are reporting intense buying of all basic commodities but there are fears that demands for water, food, cash and petrol will exceed supply.

"I went to seven gas stations and they were all closed," said Johnny Mota, waiting with 34 other drivers at a pump in eastern Caracas.

Shopper Luisa de Perez said: "I'm buying lots of canned goods because they can last for months. I hope things are going to get normal, but some products are already starting to run out."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Nick Miles
"Venezuela is becoming a nation in revolt"

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10 Dec 02 | Americas
03 Dec 02 | Media reports
29 Nov 02 | Americas
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