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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chavez Fights Opposition Strike

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Monday fought back against an opposition strike that has crippled the nation's oil industry, using troops to unblock gasoline supplies and oil shipments and importing fuel and food to offset shortages.

In a move decried by Chavez's foes as piracy, troops armed with assault rifles on Sunday seized the Pilin Leon oil tanker in western Lake Maracaibo and arrested the striking crew in the leftist leader's latest attempt to regain control of oil shipments in the world's No. 5 oil exporter.

Peace talks between the government and opposition, brokered by Organization of American States Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria, were scheduled to resume Monday.

Chavez, a pugnacious former paratrooper who was elected in 1998 and survived a brief coup in April, has ignored calls to resign. Opponents accuse him of ruining the economy and of dragging Venezuela toward a Cuban-styled communism.

Chavez has vowed to hold on to his rule, which is due to end in early 2007. In an interview with four U.S. newspapers published by The Washington Post on Monday, Chavez said he would consider resigning only if violence and economic turmoil made Venezuela ungovernable but said the worst of the 14-day strike had passed.

"If I realize that I have failed, the president could resign, but not if they put a gun to my head," Chavez was quoted as saying. "A week or two ago they were driving us toward that scenario [of being ungovernable] and you could say that the country got closer to that scenario.

"But I can say today, responsibly, that we are moving away from that scenario, recovering ground," he added.

Moving to counter growing fears of shortages caused by the two-week-old strike, the president said Sunday he had ordered the import of gasoline, milk and rice from abroad, adding the country could use its foreign currency reserves.

Reacting angrily to the army takeover of the Pilin Leon, opposition leaders accused Chavez of being a dictator and of implementing a de facto state of emergency.

"You have illegally and unconstitutionally militarized PDVSA. You are not a democrat; you are a dictator," anti-Chavez business chief Carlos Fernandez said at a meeting with reporters late Sunday. He said the strike, now in its 15th day, would continue.

The stoppage -- which has slashed Venezuela's oil output to less than a third and virtually paralyzed oil exports, including shipments to the United States -- was called on Dec. 2 by business and labor leaders to press Chavez to quit and hold early elections.

Weighing into the stalemate, the United States has urged Chavez to call early elections. Venezuela supplies 14 percent of U.S. oil imports and Washington is eager to solve the crisis as it mulls over the possibility of attacking Iraq.

But Chavez, who dismisses the strike as sabotage by fascists and traitors opposed to his self-styled revolution for the majority of poor Venezuelans, said calling early elections would violate the country's constitution.