- The Washington Times - Friday, December 6, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela The Venezuelan navy seized a government oil tanker yesterday that had been pirated by a rebel crew, and President Hugo Chavez vowed that his military would stop sabotage of the country's oil industry, the world's fifth-largest.

But a 4-day-old general strike virtually stopped the loading of oil tankers, forcing Venezuela to free buyers and sellers from fulfilling oil contracts, said Jorge Kamkoff, a state oil company vice president. Venezuela is a top oil supplier to the United States.

Exports stopped because 23 tankers were unable to have cargo loaded, Dow Jones Newswires reported. In Caracas, pro- and anti-Chavez demonstrators rallied and troops stood by to deter more political violence.

Oil exports are critical to Venezuela's economy, accounting for 75 percent of exports and half of government income.

Crude-oil and refined-products futures at the New York Mercantile Exchange opened higher yesterday because of events in Venezuela, with the January delivery price up 65 cents to $27.36 a barrel.

Opposition leaders called the strike Monday to demand immediate elections on Mr. Chavez's presidency, citing economic and political turmoil. Mr. Chavez refused. He also accused strike leaders yesterday of seeking to privatize the Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. oil monopoly, known as PDVSA.

"Assaulting PDVSA is like assaulting the heart of Venezuela," Mr. Chavez said in a nationally broadcast speech. "Nobody stops Venezuela."

He called the protest aboard the government tanker Pilin Leon named after a former Miss World "an act of piracy." Daniel Alfaro, the ship's captain and a PDVSA employee, anchored his tanker, filled with 280,000 barrels of gasoline, off the western city of Maracaibo on Wednesday.

Navy officials seized the ship yesterday and were talking with its crew, said Gen. Alberto Gutierrez, head of the army command in Zulia state. The vessel did not block shipping channels in Lake Maracaibo, through which 1 million barrels of crude are shipped daily. Protesters on tug boats circled the Pilin Leon, blowing whistles to support the crew.

Mr. Alfaro and other shipping officials said at least five other tankers anchored in protest. More were joining yesterday, he said.

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