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Venezuelan troops board tankers

From Harris Whitbeck and Ingrid Arnesen

The Moruy oil tanker sits idle in Maracaibo Lake after the crew dropped anchor in support of the general strike.

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CARACAS, Venezuela (CNN) -- President Hugo Chavez's government took new measures Saturday to try to retake control of oil production from striking petroleum workers, sending national guard troops to board two tankers filled with gasoline.

Gasoline production has nearly halted since oil workers went on strike early this month.

The Venezuelan Ministry of Energy said troops boarded the Yavire, near Puerto La Cruz in eastern Venezuela, and the Caura, near Punto Figo on the country's west coast.

More ships will be boarded, the ministry said.

Last Sunday, national guard troops took over the Pilin Leon, which is being moved to the port of Bajo Grande in Lake Maracaibo, where it is to unload its 1 million liters of oil for domestic use. Its captain and crew have been taken into custody.

Meanwhile, the shortage of gasoline has become more acute each day. Motorists sometimes must wait more than 24 hours in lines 2 miles long just to gas up. The shortage has affected the supply of basic goods in supermarkets, and resulted in accusations of price gouging.

Libertador Mayor Freddy Bernal, a Chavez ally, announced Saturday that 140 trucks filled with flour, sugar, milk and other necessities will arrive in the capital Sunday, courtesy of Colombia. Bernal is mayor of one of the five sections of Caracas, Alfredo Pena is head mayor of the entire city.

The Venezuelan government last week requested humanitarian assistance from Colombia.

Britain has asked British citizens who do not have to stay in Venezuela and non-essential employees at its embassy to leave. (Full Story)

Talks that had been scheduled to take place Friday night between government officials and opposition leaders to resolve the strike and discuss new elections were postponed when government officials reportedly failed to show up.

Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, who had been in Caracas to mediate the talks, then left the country for the weekend. He said he would return Monday to try to restart the talks.

Meanwhile, there were signs that the almost daily protests -- which began in October -- might escalate. An opposition leader told reporters Friday that protesters are considering marching on the Miraflores presidential palace. The last march there, in April, triggered deadly clashes between Chavez supporters and demonstrators that resulted in a short-lived coup against the controversial leftist leader.

A general strike, which entered its 20th day Saturday, is intended to force Chavez to resign or call early elections. It is costing the country about $50 million a day in oil revenues, and has caused output to drop from about 3 million barrels per day to fewer than 200,000 barrels per day.

Venezuela accounts for about 15 percent of U.S. oil imports, and the shutdown, along with the possibility of war in Iraq, has pushed the world oil price above $30 a barrel.

The world's top oil exporter Saudi Arabia said Saturday that OPEC would release more supply onto world markets if prices stayed above the cartel's $22-28 a barrel target range until mid-January, Reuters reported.

Chavez, elected in 1998, has vowed not to resign or call early elections. On Friday, his supporters held smaller rallies outside several offices of the state-run oil company, PDVSA, demanding that oil workers return to work.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ordered oil workers to end their work stoppage, but PDVSA executives, who support the strike, have refused to comply with the order.

Carlos Ortega, an opposition leader, said Venezuela has hired Cuban oil workers to help restart the petroleum production.

CNN was not able to confirm the claim.

Ortega and another opposition leader told reporters they feared they would be arrested and were taking measures to evade capture.

A government spokesman said the Supreme Court ruling ordering the petroleum workers back on the job has given them the power to detain the workers, but he said that has not occurred.

Meanwhile, protesters took to the streets again Saturday, this time outside the headquarters of the metropolitan police, who have shown sympathy for the strikers.

Three protesters have died in violence this month, and government troops have been using rubber bullets to break up crowds of protesters who have been blocking highways.

Chavez, a former paratrooper, is a fiery populist whose rule has polarized Venezuelans. While he still retains strong support among the poor, he has antagonized wide segments of the middle class, which has attacked his leftist style of governing.

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