- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 12, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela Heavily armed navy troops yesterday scrambled up the sides of two tankers 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 that has shut Venezuela's crucial oil industry and divided this increasingly impoverished South American nation.

In Vienna, Austria, Alvaro Silva, secretary-general of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and 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 with 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 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.

Navy troops also seized the Pilin Leon, an oil tanker that began the ship protests when it anchored off western Maracaibo last week.

Foes and followers of Mr. Chavez held street rallies overnight, each side trying to out-shout the other amid 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 Mr. Chavez's rule if the opposition ends the strike first.

"Let's both give in," Miss Urbaneja said in an interview with Globovision television yesterday. "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 yesterday.

Lines several blocks long also formed just after dawn in front of banks, which were open 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 Mr. Chavez's four-year rule entered the streets to clang pots and pans in a noisy nighttime ritual. Many of Mr. Chavez's foes have abandoned their original demand of a nonbinding referendum on his rule.

The State Department warned Americans to put off all travel to Venezuela and said U.S. citizens 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.

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