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 Saturday, 18 January, 2003, 00:41 GMT
Venezuela troops seize drinks firms
A Venezuelan National Guard soldier walks next to Coca-Cola bottles storage in the Coca-Cola - Panamco bottling plant
Panamco said it had cut its output due to the shortages
Members of the Venezuelan National Guard have seized control of two bottling plants, in an effort to stave off shortages caused by the country's seven-week-old general strike.

The first seizure, from a company affiliated to Coca-Cola in the central city of Valencia, was the first major takeover of a food plant since President Hugo Chavez threatened to send in troops to close down facilities that hoarded food.

Taking into account that collective rights preside over personal rights, we are proceeding to distribute these products to the population

General Felipe Acosta
Troops also forced their way into a warehouse of the beer and food maker Empresas Polar, Venezuela's largest private company.

Earlier on Friday, Mr Chavez welcomed an initiative to bring in foreign representatives to bolster talks aimed at ending the strike, which started in December when anti-Chavez protestors demanded early elections.

The ongoing stoppage has crippled oil production in the country - which before the strike was the world's fifth largest oil exporter - and led to chronic shortages in food and fuel.

'For the people'

After forcing the gates of the Panamco drinks company in Valencia, General Felipe Acosta - a close ally of President Chavez - swaggered around the warehouse, pointing at stacks of beverages he said were being hoarded deliberately.

Heavily armed troops then began to take bottled water, soda and malt drinks from the plant, while soldiers fired tear gas and used flat-edged swords to disperse protesters gathered outside.

President Hugo Chavez
President Chavez delivered his 'State of the Nation' address on Friday
The general took a long swig of a malt drink and belched loudly in front of television cameras who were broadcasting the operation live.

Mr Acosta insisted he was seizing the drinks "for the people".

"Taking into account that collective rights preside over personal rights, we are proceeding to distribute these products to the population," he said.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel insisted the seizure was legal.

"Those straying from the rule of law are the opposition, which decides to suspend the right to free transit, access to schools and free trade," Mr Rangel said.

But Romulo Salazar, a sales manager for Panamco, said the drinks were "being seized by military personnel for no reason whatsoever."

He said the company had not been able to produce drinks recently, because of fuel and sugar shortages.

Since the strike started in early December, soft drinks and beer have been almost impossible to get hold of, says the BBC correspondent in Caracas, Adam Easton.

'Fascist coup-mongers'

During his annual address to parliament on Friday, Mr Chavez said he would not be forced into negotiating with the opposition strikers.

He said the action was just a coup in disguise, aimed at overthrowing him, and he staunchly rejected their calls for early elections.

"What you have here is a democratic government fighting fascists, terrorists and coup-mongers," Mr Chavez said. "There can be no dialogue and there will be no dialogue."

But he also gave a conditional welcome to foreign intervention.

His comments come just a day after he met with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York, for talks on breaking the deadlock.

The two-month old talks need all the help they can get, our correspondent says.

Although Venezuela has lost $4bn in oil sales, a solution to end the strike seems as far away as ever.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Richard Forrest
"Despite the hardships, a solution still seems a long way off"

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16 Jan 03 | Business
05 Jan 03 | Americas
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