Chavez Wants Expansion of Group of Friends, PDVSA Employee Arrested

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Saturday called for Brazil's support in expanding the Group of Friends of Venezuela to include other countries, and National Guard troops arrested an employee accused of sabotage of the state-run oil company PDVSA.

Chavez, who arrived here for a one-day visit, said the group, set up to help solve the political crisis in Venezuela, "must be expanded to include other countries that are friends of Venezuela,such as Cuba, Russia, China, France and the Dominican Republic."

During a meeting with his Brazilian counterpart Luiz "Lula" da Silva, Chavez said he was not worried that some group members support the opposition's proposal for calling an early election onFeb. 2, which has been backed by the United States.

President "Lula" da Silva termed as balanced the Group of Friends, which now includes Brazil, Mexico, Spain, the United States, Portugal and Chile, to mediate an end to the political crisis in Venezuela.

Chavez insisted that the opposition, which launched a nationwide strike on Dec. 2 to press their demand for his resignation, is part of a group that supports a coup against him.

Chavez, who was reelected in 2000 and survived a brief coup in April, rejected calls for any referendum before August -- halfway through his six-year presidential term.

The "pro-coup" group has paralyzed Venezuela's state-run oil company PDVSA, the world's No.5 petroleum producer, he said.

Chavez told reporters that he discussed with Lula a program forgreater cooperation between the PDVSA and its Brazilian counterpart PETROBRAS.

The strike -- now in its 48th day - has crippled oil productionand exports in the world's fifth largest oil exporter. It has alsojolted oil markets and forced the oil cartel OPEC on Sunday to raise production by 1.5 million barrels per day to stave off a spike in prices.



PDVSA EMPLOYEE ARRESTED

Venezuela's National Guard troops arrested an employee of the PDVSA, who was accused of committing sabotage in a natural gas plant in Cabimas, Zulia state.

Brigadier-General Marcos Rojas said the man, identified as Nestor Morales, was caught when he was altering readings of Tia Juana well 3.

"With the change in the readings two things could have happened:the plant's production was turned off, or an explosion occurred," he added.

The brigadier-general said the arrest took place after Morales returned to work last Monday. "All those wishing to return to workin PDVSA are watched closely as part of security measures," he added.

Morales had been handed over to the Attorney General's office, Rojas said.

During the meeting with Brazilian President Lula, Chavez also defended the military takeover of a Coca Cola plant, saying such amove was necessary to prevent the shortage of food and beverage inhis country.

National guard troops on Friday took over a local bottling affiliate of Coca-Cola Co. in the central city of Valencia, about 150 km from the capital Caracas.

In Dec., Chavez issued a presidential decree, authorizing the military to take over food facilities to guarantee the basic food supplies.

Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS), suspended his mediation efforts between theVenezuelan government and the opposition, citing tensions in the wake of Friday's military raids into the plant.

Gaviria has been attempting to bring the two sides to the negotiation table since the opposition called the six-week-old general strike on Dec. 2.



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