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Venezuela Strikers Reject 'Truce' Offer

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Venezuela strikers reject 'truce' offer

Opposition strikers held a torchlit protest

The opposition in Venezuela has rejected a Christmas truce proposed by the government - saying the general strike to demand the resignation of President Hugo Chavez must go on.

In the Christmas season, it is important that violence doesn't prevail- Jose Vicente Rangel, Vice President

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said the government was willing to hold talks over the holiday period.

But an opposition spokesman rejected the idea, saying the time was not right and on Monday night, thousands of people held a torchlit protest demanding the president's resignation.

Earlier in the day - the 23rd of a crippling general strike called - troops clashed with anti-government demonstrators in Maracaibo, the heart of the country's oil sector.

Venezuela's output of oil - its most important export - has been cut by about 90% since the stoppage began.

The only one responsible here for us not having Christmas is you Mr Chavez- Carlos Ortega, Union leader

The government has told striking oil workers to return to work or face dismissal.

But at the same time, it offered negotiations with the opposition.

"In the Christmas season, it is important that violence doesn't prevail and for that reason I think that a truce would be very healthy for everyone," Mr Rangel told local radio.

He did not provide details of the proposal.

Food shortages

Venezuela's opposition, however, has vowed to press on with the protests until Mr Chavez steps down.

The protest in Caracas went off peacefully

"The only one responsible here for us not having Christmas is you Mr Chavez," union leader Carlos Ortega said, adding that the only solution was the president's removal.

On Monday night, marchers carried candles, torches and lanterns to a square outside one of the buildings of the state-owned oil company.

The square was a sea of red, yellow and blue as demonstrators waved the national flag.

The BBC's Adam Easton in Caracas says the demonstration was a clear show of support for Venezuela's striking oil workers.

But earlier the was a sign of further tension when security forces fired tear gas to disperse a group of demonstrators who tried to march across a bridge in Maracaibo.

The march was called in support for the striking crews of oil tankers anchored in Maracaibo Lake.

Troops have begun seizing tankers, in an attempt to relieve severe fuel shortages across the country.

Mr Chavez, who accused the opposition of seeking to "destroy the holiday spirit", also ordered troops to distribute cornmeal and the country's Christmas staple, hayacas.

"They wanted to sabotage cornmeal. That was very clever of them. Without cornmeal, you can't have hayacas at Christmas," he said.

But food supplies in shops that are open are dwindling and many restaurants and cinemas have shut down in support of the strike in Caracas.

The strikers, led by a coalition of businessmen and other groups opposed to Mr Chavez's populist policies, accuse the president of mismanagement and authoritarianism.

But Mr Chavez insists he will stay on, until a referendum next August.

Reduced to a trickle

The economy is reeling from the loss of oil revenue.

The government is only able to maintain exports at between 5% and 10% of the usual 2.7 million barrels per day.

Reuters new agency says the price of the international oil benchmark, Brent crude, jumped $1.08 to $29.42 on Monday, while US crude rose $1.13 to $31.43 - both near two-year highs.

Oil provides about 70% of Venezuela's export revenues.

Mr Chavez has confirmed that emergency measures are in place to import fuel from Brazil and Colombia.

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