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Since 1st March, 1999
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Strike-hit Chavez seizes Coke arm

Caracas (Venezuela), Jan. 18 (Reuters): Venezuelan troops seized control of a bottling affiliate of Coca-Cola and raided a beer warehouse yesterday as President Hugo Chavez made good on his threat to get tough with a six-week Opposition strike that has disrupted fuel and food supplies.

National Guard troops wielding metal batons and firing tear gas clashed with a small group of protesters who tried to block the entrance to Venezuela’s largest bottling plant — Panamco’s water and soft drinks facility — in Valencia, about 160 km west of Caracas.

Troops drove away several Coke trucks and seized crates of drinks. They later forced their way into a warehouse of the beer and food maker Empresas Polar, Venezuela’s largest private company, after shoving managers into the street.

The measures were the first major action against food and beverage plants after Chavez threatened to ease shortages by sending troops to seize manufacturing facilities withholding products during the strike that aims to force him to resign.

The move against private property rattled Opposition leaders who accuse the Leftist leader of ruling like a dictator and fear he wants to install Cuba-style Communism in Venezuela, the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter. “We are distributing this product to the population because collective rights come above individual rights,” National Guard Gen. Luis Felipe Acosta Carles said at the Panamco plant.

Outraged Opposition leaders said the takeover was illegal. But it was unclear whether the troops maintained control of the plant after hauling away products. The Opposition strike, started on December 2, has cut off Venezuela’s economic lifeline by slashing its vital oil exports to a fifth of normal levels, rattling global markets and causing long lines for scarce gasoline supplies.

Strike leaders, including political parties, unions, business groups and rebel managers at state oil firm PDVSA, have vowed to strike until Chavez quits and calls elections.

World oil prices hit fresh two-year highs, with US futures briefly touching $34 a barrel as the Venezuelan crisis compounded fears of a US-led war in Iraq. Venezuela’s bolivar currency, battered by economic uncertainty, dipped 2.3 per cent as it extended its slide.

In a “state of the nation” speech yesterday at the National Assembly, Chavez denounced his foes and kept up his staunch rejection of their calls for early elections.

“What you have here is a democratic government fighting fascists, terrorists and coup-mongers,” Chavez said. “There can be no dialogue and there will be no dialogue.”

Chavez, a former paratrooper who survived a coup in April, has ordered the military to take over oil installations as he fights to defeat the shutdown. He has also threatened to take over schools, banks and factories that join the protest, which he says is an illegal attempt to oust him.

His tough comments came one day after he met UN secretary-general Kofi Annan in New York for talks on breaking the deadlock. A group of six nations, including the US and Brazil, agreed on Wednesday to back negotiations between the government and the Opposition.

Chavez was due to travel to Brazil for a meeting with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who first proposed the so-called “group of friends” initiative.

In Venezuela, talks brokered by the Organisation of American States were suspended until Monday because of tensions between the government and the Opposition, mediators said.

US ambassador Charles Shapiro said he had called the government to express his concern over US commercial interests and the legality of the Panamco takeover.

“Of course, this strains our relations. Apparently, and I hope I am wrong about this, these officials did not act within the law,” he told local television.

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