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Thursday, 12 December, 2002, 01:35 GMT
Venezuela head upbeat despite strike
Opposition marchers on the streets of Caracas
Undeterred, marchers took to the streets again
Venezuela's embattled President Hugo Chavez has declared that oil production and distribution are restarting as a general strike prepared to go into its 11th day.

"The most important thing is we are getting out of this crisis," he said.

"The situation is progressively impoving. The supply of petrol is flowing."

According to unconfirmed reports, at least one more oil tanker was seized from striking crew on Wednesday and naval officers were trying to persuade other captains to deliver their cargoes.

Reuters news agency quoted shipping agents as saying that at least two ships have been loading, and another two were due to load.

Earlier, Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel told the BBC the strike - called by the opposition to try to get Mr Chavez to quit - was mainly taking place on television screens, and that in reality services were running normally.

Mr Chavez is a left-over Communist who wants to destroy his country

Gualterio Bamberg, Caracas, Venezuela

However oil production has plummeted to a quarter of its normal levels in the world's fifth-biggest producer, and people started panic-buying, fearing the situation would deteriorate.

Talks between the government and the opposition - which wants a date for a referendum on whether Mr Chavez should continue in power are being mediated by the Organisation of American States (OAS).

However there was little sign of a breakthrough on Wednesday and talks are expected to resume on Thursday.

'No impact'

The Associated Press news agency said navy troops stormed the tanker Pilin Leon on Wednesday in addition to seizing another vessel, the Yavire.

"They [the troops] climbed up on ropes and aimed their pistols at the sailors on the bridge, who had to lie down on the floor," the Yavire's chief engineer Cesar Franco told local radio by telephone.

But beyond arresting the captain, the troops could not force the crew to co-operate and move it, Reuters news agency reported.

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Click above to see Venezuela's oil export terminals

OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria, who has been mediating between the sides, said there had been "serious discussion" on Wednesday about a proposal for a constitutional amendment that would allow early elections.

"We can't say we are close to an agreement," Mr Gaviria said.

He also expressed concern that violence could erupt before an accord is reached.

There were further demonstrations by both sides on Wednesday.

Strike leader Carlos Ortega, the head of the largest workers confederation claimed the action was "growing every day".

For the second day running, long queues formed outside banks as some people rushed to withdraw cash, whilst others went panic-buying at petrol stations and supermarkets.

Heavy losses

On Tuesday, the head of the state oil company PDVSA, Ali Rodriguez, announced that the country's largest refinery, Paraguana, had shut down.

Troops guard petrol station in Caracas
Queues again formed at petrol stations and supermarkets

Paraguana normally processes three-quarters of the country's oil.

Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez put daily losses from oil exports $50m.

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See also:

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