- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2008

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez sent a soothing message to American motorists yesterday, saying Venezuela is not preparing to cut off oil shipments to the United States.

The socialist leader rattled oil markets last Sunday when he threatened to halt shipments to the United States in retaliation for Exxon Mobil Corp.’s success in persuading courts in the U.S. and Europe to freeze Venezuelan assets.

“We don’t have plans to stop sending oil to the United States,” the socialist leader said yesterday during a visit to heavy-oil projects in Venezuela’s petroleum-rich Orinoco River basin that were nationalized last year.

But he added that Venezuela could cut off supplies to the United States if Washington “attacks Venezuela or tries to harm us.”

Mr. Chavez has warned against any U.S. invasion that he says Washington would use to seize control of Venezuela’s immense oil reserves.

U.S. officials have denied any such plan.

The United States relies on Venezuela for about 10 percent of its oil imports.

The administration of Mr. Chavez — a close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro — is locked in a legal battle with the Irving, Texas-based company over compensation for the nationalization of one of four heavy oil projects in the Orinoco River basin.

Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, is seeking to freeze billions of dollars in Venezuelan assets in the United States and Europe to guarantee a payoff in the event it wins a decision by an international arbitration panel.

Last month, a British court injunction ordered up to $12 billion of assets of the Venezuelan state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela S.A temporarily frozen.

On Thursday, Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said Exxon Mobil is demanding more than 10 times the compensation it may deserve from Venezuela for nationalizing the oil venture.