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 Thursday, 19 December, 2002, 13:53 GMT
Chavez vows to 'defend revolution'
A Chavez supporter clashes with a opposition protester
Scuffles broke out during the road blockades
Venezuela's embattled President Hugo Chavez has told a stadium full of supporters they must be ready to defend their "revolution" in the face of a crippling general strike.

Mr Chavez was speaking after the Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered him to return control of the Caracas police force to the capital's mayor.

President Hugo Chavez addresses supporters
Mr Chavez denounced "coup-plotting oil elites"
Mr Chavez had ordered the military to take over police stations in the capital on 16 November, seizing power from one of his strongest opponents, Mayor Alfred Pena, and Mr Pena's police chief, Henry Vivas.

The government has reportedly said it will obey the ruling within two weeks, in line with the court order.

Oil bosses

Mr Chavez denounced executives of the state oil company PDVSA - a keystone of the country's economy - as "coup-plotting oil elites" and said he would "clean up" the company.

Soldiers patrol a petrol station in Maracaibo, western Venezuela
Troops were told to obey only presidential decrees
Mr Chavez has already sacked a number of oil executives who supported the strike, which entered its 18th day on Thursday.

The president issued another decree on Wednesday which is likely to prove controversial - allowing the military to commandeer privately-owned lorries, ships and planes to distribute supplies during the general strike.

The stoppage is crippling the country's oil industry, with protesters blocking major highways in Caracas and other cities and ships' crews supporting the strike.

Bolivar's day

Mr Chavez refuses to consider the early elections demanded by his opponents, who accuse him of mismanaging the economy and of authoritarianism.

This ruling restores the authority of the mayor's office

Mayor Alfred Pena

Wednesday's strike coincided with the anniversary of the death of 19th-Century independence hero Simon Bolivar.

Thousands of opposition supporters blocked the main roads of Caracas and marched on Bolivar's tomb, waving flags and chanting anti-Chavez slogans.

Opposition activists also set up roadblocks in Maracaibo and other cities.

The Supreme Court meanwhile allowed a 15-day period for the military to hand back police power in Caracas to the mayor.

"This restores normality," Mayor Alfred Pena said after the ruling.


An opposition demonstrator waves a flag in Caracas amid tear gas
Continuing unrest is forcing up the price of oil
Mr Chavez says discussions about his mandate will not take place before August 2003, when a referendum is due on his presidency.

The Organisation of American States - in a statement issued this week - called on Venezuelans to find a "peaceful democratic constitutional and electoral solution" to the standoff, but did not explicitly call for early elections.

The unrest in the world's fifth largest oil exporter has pushed the price of a barrel of oil to more than $31, amid growing supply fears.

The country's oil production has reportedly fallen by 80%.

The chairman of PDVSA, Ali Rodriguez, strongly condemned his employees, most of whom are taking part in the strike.

On Wednesday, Britain and Germany both advised their citizens against travelling to Venezuela because of the tense political atmosphere.

  The BBC's Nick Miles
"Hugo Chavez is far from being your average politician"

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See also:

16 Dec 02 | Business
16 Dec 02 | Americas
16 Dec 02 | Americas
15 Dec 02 | Business
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