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Friday, 13 December, 2002, 21:56 GMT
Venezuela leader vows to break strike
Army officers march with opponents of Hugo Chavez
More than 100 military officers joined the protesters
The embattled Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, has said he is ready to use foreign workers to re-start the country's oil production, which has been paralysed by a general strike.

If 80% of the strikers must go, then they must go

Hugo Chavez
Mr Chavez's threat came as the United States called on the Venezuelan Government to hold early elections to resolve the crisis caused by the strike - now in its 12th day.

The White House spokesman said elections would be the only peaceful and viable way out of the current turmoil.

The strike has crippled the oil industry of Venezuela, which is the world's fifth largest exporter and a major supplier to the US.

A customer selects an item from an almost bare shelves at a supermarket in Caracas
The turmoil has forced people into panic-buying

But strike leaders - who accuse Mr Chavez of economic mismanagement and authoritarian rule - insist the protests will go on until the president resigns.

Mr Chavez denies the allegations, saying his opponents are trying to stage a coup against him.

Meanwhile, the Organisation of American States (OAS) has held a special meeting in Washington to discuss the situation.

The OAS's head, Cesar Gaviria - who is Caracas to mediate in talks between the government and opposition - says no progress has been made so far.

Violence continues

President Chavez said using foreign workers would be a last resort, adding that he had already received offers from other members of the oil producing cartel, Opec.

"I don't want it to get to that point, but if [the strikers] do not go back to work... then foreign workers will be brought," he said at the headquarters of the state oil company, PDVSA.

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Click above to see Venezuela's oil export terminals

"If 80% of the strikers must go, then they must go. Everyone is for the restarting of Venezuela's oil production. The world is with Venezuela," the president said.

The president's statement shortly came after another day of violence in the capital, Caracas.

On Thursday, police fired tear gas to break up clashes between supporters and opponents of the president, amid reports that two policemen were injured.

Mediators at the talks in Caracas have warned that the strike is affecting food supplies and could lead to riots and looting.

US pressure

The White House statement said the US was deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation in Venezuela.

Troops guard petrol station in Caracas
Troops are guarding petrol stations

"We urge a peaceful, democratic, constitutional and politically viable electoral solution to Venezuela's crisis," the statement said.

The BBC's Michael Buchanan in Washington says this is the Bush administration's strongest statement so far, but it realises it has little influence over President Chavez.

Our correspondent says that Mr Chavez - with his trips to Iraq and Libya and his friendship with Cuba's leader Fidel Castro - has frequently angered Washington.

A failed coup attempt in April further undermined American influence because of persistent rumours in Venezuela that the US tacitly approve the move.

Washington has firmly denied this.

But our correspondent says that with little progress between the government and the opposition, the US may feel that there is little to lose by publicly urging the Venezuelan Government to call early elections.

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See also:

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