Venezuela nazy boards tankers
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World - AP Latin America
Venezuela Navy Boards Striking Tankers
1 hour, 53 minutes ago
By STEPHEN IXER, Associated Press Writer
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Heavily armed navy troops scrambled up the sides of two tankers Wednesday that had refused to deliver their cargoes as part of a protest against President Hugo Chavez. The captains were arrested.
The ships were part of a 10-day-old protest aimed at ousting the president, which has shut Venezuela's crucial oil industry and divided this increasingly impoverished South American nation.
In Vienna, OPEC (news - web sites) Secretary General Alvaro Silva, a Venezuelan, warned that the country's crisis is "worrying and is affecting the market in general." The International Energy Agency estimated Venezuela's oil production is 1 million barrels a day, compared to normal rates of up to 3 million barrels a day.
Cesar Franco, machine chief of the tanker Yavira, which is anchored off Anzoategui in central Venezuela, told Union Radio that navy troops boarded the ship by climbing up ropes at about 4 a.m.
"Two of them were carrying machine guns — inside a ship carrying natural gas," he said. "We were afraid they'd get a shot off."
He said the troops held the crew at gunpoint and arrested Capt. Atilio Bermudez. The troops were trying to persuade the crew to continue work under a new captain.
Lawyer Gonzalo Himiob confirmed the account and said navy troops also seized the Pilin Leon, an oil tanker that began the ship protests when it anchored off western Maracaibo last week.
Himiob called the actions "piracy and confiscation," and said the crew was refusing to work with a new captain brought aboard.
Foes and followers of the president held rallies on the street overnight, each side trying to out-shout the other over opposition demands that the leftist president resign. But 10 days into the strike, the two sides appeared no closer to a resolution.
Health Minister Maria Urbaneja urged both sides to back down, but only repeated earlier claims that the government was ready to discuss a date for elections on Chavez's rule — if the opposition ends the strike first.
"Let's both give in," Urbaneja said in an interview with Globovision television Wednesday. "With violence there is no possibility of dialogue toward peace."
With food becoming scarce, thousands of people packed a government-organized street market offering cut-rate prices along several blocks of a main boulevard Wednesday.
Lines several blocks long also formed just after dawn in front of banks, which were opening only from 9 a.m. to noon.
With many stores shuttered for the strike and with oil exports virtually paralyzed in the world's No. 5 oil export nation, many feared a turn for the worse.
The federal tax agency reported that Venezuelan imports have fallen 30 percent since the strike began.
Overnight, hundreds of raucous "Chavistas," as the president's followers are known, ringed the headquarters of the private Globovision network. They also rallied outside the state oil monopoly.
Elsewhere, thousands of Venezuelans opposed to Chavez's four-year rule entered the streets to clang pots and pans in a noisy nighttime ritual. Many of Chavez's foes have abandoned their original demand of a nonbinding referendum on Chavez's rule.
"We want Chavez to fall, nothing less," said Selina Palaver, 71, who tooted a black whistle and clutched a vial of vinegar to lessen the effects of tear gas.
The U.S. State Department warned Americans to put off all travel to Venezuela and said U.S. already there should consider leaving. The agency said the political and security situation in the country was deteriorating, accompanied by severe shortages of goods and services.
Hopes of a swift, nonviolent settlement receded Tuesday. Cesar Gaviria, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, said peace talks did not advance beyond the government's agreement earlier this week to discuss "an electoral timetable."
The two sides planned to meet again Wednesday.
Chavez's government refuses to recognize the very existence of the strike, which has almost dried up domestic fuel supplies and caused panic-buying at supermarkets nationwide.
"The strike doesn't exist. It is a strike managed only through the media," said Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel.
Rangel also called for Venezuelans to respect the news media and condemned any attempts to target journalists.
On Monday, Chavez's street supporters surrounded several radio, television and newspaper stations and ransacked a regional television station. Chavez accuses the news media of supporting the general strike.
Also Tuesday, nearly half of Venezuela's Supreme Court justices stopped work, condemning government political harassment and violence during the strike.