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Venezuelan Troops Board Idle Oil Tankers, Arrest Crews

Venezuelan troops loyal to embattled President Hugo Chavez have boarded several oil tankers and arrested the crew of one of the ships idled by a three-week national strike. The move prompted immediate condemnations from opposition leaders who called the work stoppage to force Mr. Chavez' ouster.

Opposition leaders are decrying the government action as illegal and dangerous, and say it shows desperation on the part of President Hugo Chavez.

Saturday, troops handcuffed striking crewmembers of the tanker Pilin Leon on Lake Maracaibo in northwestern Venezuela. The troops installed a replacement crew that took the vessel to port, where its cargo will presumably be unloaded to combat a fuel shortage that is paralyzing the country.

Meanwhile, officials of the Chavez government took to the airwaves to exhort the country's petroleum workers to return to their posts in compliance with a recent supreme court order.

In his broadcast, Production and Commerce Minister Ramon Rosales accused strike organizers of attempting to destroy the country and said the government had no choice but to act.

"One of the most lethal consequences of the sabotage of the petroleum industry has been a drastic reduction in fuel production," he said. "The government is obliged to intensify its efforts to combat this situation, and is forming replacement work crews for the petroleum sector that will return the country to a normal state of affairs."

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Jose Luis Prieto said oil workers who remain on strike will be subject to legal sanctions. He also warned that the military would begin enforcing the supreme court ruling ordering all oil workers back on the job.

Opposition leaders say there is no legal precedent for punishing those who exercise their right to strike. They add that the involvement of the defense minister in the matter constitutes a de facto militarization of Venezuela and a dangerous step towards the loss of civilian rule.

They also accused the government of installing a Cuban crew aboard the Pilin Leon, prompting a swift denial from Cuba's embassy in Caracas. President Chavez is well-known as an open admirer of Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Virtually all gasoline stations in Caracas and much of the rest of the country have run out of fuel. Lines of automobiles snake for kilometers from many stations, as drivers wait in hopes that a shipment of gasoline will be forthcoming.

Among them is a woman who identifies herself as Magda. Asked how long she has been waiting, she rolls her eyes.

"I have been waiting since yesterday morning - but no gasoline has arrived," she said. "Every couple of hours, the attendants announce that the gasoline is on the way, but nothing ever comes. She asks, what can I do? I need fuel for my car."

The fuel shortage is not only affecting average motorists, but also the delivery of food and merchandise. Many supermarket shelves are bare of flour and other staples - and in some locations, hoarding has begun.