Oil workers and a crew loyal to the government of Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president, began unloading fuel on Sunday from the Pilín León, a strike-bound tanker containing 280,000 barrels of gasoline, at a distribution terminal near the western city of Maracaibo.
Distribution of the gasoline will ease shortages in the Maracaibo area for several days and the government is likely to ensure priority fuel supplies for food transportation.
A second vessel was on Sunday reportedly being steered by an army general towards the main port near Caracas, temporarily easing fuel shortages around the capital.
As Christmas approaches, public support for the opposition-led strike against the government is slipping, as drivers become frustrated at being forced to spend hours in long lines, sometimes overnight, in the search for petrol.
However, the symbolic movement of the two tankers is only a small victory for the government in its battle to break the three-week-old strike by managers at state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).
With oil production and refining activities at below 400,000 barrels per day, and anti-government managers seemingly determined to remain on strike until Mr Chávez resigns, the government will find it very difficult to increase output at PDVSA in the near future.
Shipping agents say about 40 tankers remain anchored off the coast of Venezuela, unable to berth and load with oil and products bound for overseas markets. Venezuela normally supplies the US with 15 per cent of its crude oil imports.
Concerns that fuel and food shortages could lead to disturbances prompted the UK to withdraw non-essential embassy staff from Caracas at the weekend.
Meanwhile, the head of the International Energy Agency said that if Venezuela's oil strike persisted, its Opec partners should live up to their promises to maintain market stability by making up the shortfall.
Robert Priddle, director of the IEA, which represents 26 industrialised oil-consuming countries, told the FT that he was disappointed by Opec's "curious" decision last week to combine an increase in its formal production quotas with a decrease in actual output next month.
Mr Priddle said so far "no one is panicking, not even the US", which draws heavily on Venezuelan imports, but he warned lost oil output from the Latin American producer could be twice as much as the shortfall from a war in Iraq.
"If the Venezuelan crisis persists, then this is an opportunity for Opec producers to do what they consistently say, which is to keep the world oil market adequately supplied," he said.
"If there were a combination of losses from Venezuela and Iraq, and the reaction from other Opec producers [in terms of a compensating output increase], IEA member governments could respond by releasing some of their own stocks on to the market," he said.
As much as 12m barrels a day could be drawn from public stocks, which were held chiefly by the US, Germany and Japan. Deadline to register for Chavez referendum extended one day
Deadline to register for Chavez referendum extended one day
Venezuelan electoral officials have extended by one day Sunday's deadline to register to vote in an upcoming referendum on whether President Hugo Chavez should remain in power.
National Electoral Council (CNE) president Alfredo Avella said Sunday in a press conference that the decision was prompted by the large numbers of people, especially young Venezuelans, who have come out to register.
Avella also explained that the registration deadline could not be extended further because the CNE wants to avoid having to change the election calendar or the date of the non-binding referendum, which is scheduled for Feb. 2, 2003.
The new voter registrations will be verified by the National Office of Identification and Immigration.
The referendum on Chavez's presidency was demanded by opposition groups who gathered some two million signatures of Venezuelans calling to put the president's popularity to a vote.
The Venezuelan opposition is demanding that Chavez step down.
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