The navy, acting on orders of President Hugo Chavez, seized a gasoline tanker Thursday after it was taken over by its crew as part of an opposition strike aimed at unseating the Venezuelan leader.
As the strike spread to the crucial oil industry, navy officers boarded the government-owned tanker Pilin Leon, whose crew had anchored their vessel off the western city of Maracaibo to protest Chavez's government.
The naval action was announced by Gen. Alberto Gutierrez, head of the army command in the state of Zulia. The Pilin Leon, which carried 280,000 barrels of gasoline, had not blocked shipping lanes.
In an earlier televised address, the president told Venezuelans and international clients — he mentioned the United States — that he would use the military to keep Venezuela's oil industry working. Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and a major U.S. supplier.
"This is an act of piracy," Chavez said, sitting in front of a giant painting of South American liberator Simon Bolivar and fingering a tiny edition of the Venezuelan constitution. He said the army, navy and air force were ready to secure the oil industry.
Chavez spoke after demonstrations by tens of thousands of opponents across Venezuela staged a general strike demanding new presidential elections. The crews of at least six oil and gas tankers joined the strike by anchoring their ships rather than make their deliveries.
Chavez did not mention elections in his speech, but accused strike leaders of plotting a coup.
Protesters massed in Caracas for more demonstrations Thursday — both pro- and anti-Chavez. Strike leaders changed the route of an opposition march in a bid to avoid a clash with another march by Chavez supporters in red T-shirts and berets. National Guard troops stood by.
Chavez described the nationwide strike, in its fourth day Thursday, as an attempt by "coup plotters" in the business sector to take over the government oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., and privatize it for their own profit.
"Assaulting PDVSA is like assaulting the heart of Venezuela," Chavez said. "A plan is underway that intends to destabilize the country. ... Nobody stops Venezuela."
The opposition scored a major victory with the surprise rebellion of the Pilin Leon. Other dissident state oil company workers tried to disrupt exports. A government shipping agent said tanker loading was halted, but Chavez's ministers insisted operations were normal.
Under international pressure, strike leaders had suggested Wednesday they were ready to call off the strike and resume talks on early presidential elections.
Instead, they extended the strike indefinitely, snubbing peacemaking efforts by Organization of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria.
Chavez accused strike leaders of pursuing a strategy that briefly toppled him in April — street confrontations, a general strike and an oil industry shutdown, all backed by Venezuela's news media.
"Every time these sectors call a strike it's because they have a card up their sleeve, a hidden knife," Chavez said.
Dissident officers deposed Chavez April 12 after 19 people were killed in an opposition march, many by pro-Chavez gunmen. Loyalists restored Chavez after an interim government abolished the constitution, triggering a popular rebellion.
Before the navy action, Venezuela's military had stayed put — except for the National Guard, which fired tear gas at protesters in a Caracas suburb late Wednesday after quashing protests on Tuesday.
Opposition marches spread to 11 cities across the country, and clashes among opposition demonstrators, Chavez supporters and police forces were reported in five of them.
Citing Venezuela's political and economic crisis under Chavez's leftist government, the opposition is demanding a nonbinding referendum on Chavez's presidency on Feb. 2, hoping to increase pressure on him to quit.
Chavez cites Venezuela's constitution, which says a binding referendum may be held halfway into a six-year presidential term. In Chavez's case, that's next August.
The oil industry increasingly became the focus of conflict.
Daniel Alfaro, a tanker captain employed by PDVSA, anchored the Pilin Leon — named after a former Miss World — in Lake Maracaibo, through which ships carrying 1 million barrels of crude pass each day. The action did not block tankers from using a channel leading to the Caribbean.
"We aren't going to move the ship," he told The Associated Press by cellular phone from the ship.
He said he had spoken with five other captains who also had anchored their tankers off different parts of the Venezuelan coast, and he said more ships would anchor in protest on Thursday.
In an earlier, prepared statement, Alfaro said that "we don't identify with this government, which is leading us to a Castro-communist regime." As a ship captain, he said, he personally objected to delivering oil to Cuba under a pact that provides preferential finance terms to Fidel Castro's government.
On Maracaibo's boardwalk, dozens of people blew whistles, banged pots and pans and flashed car headlights to show their support for the Pilin Leon crew.
"We're here offering our support so that the government doesn't send the crew to jail," said Adriana Pena, sitting on the boardwalk after a noisy night under the stars. "This is the most important development of the strike so far. We have to support them."
Jesus Cabrera, a Petroleos de Venezuela shipping agent, said the nation's terminals stopped loading tankers Wednesday, effectively paralyzing oil exports. The claim couldn't immediately be verified.
PDVSA's president, Ali Rodriguez, acknowledged there was "a notable absence" among the oil company's management in Caracas, but said Venezuela has enough reserves to supply the domestic market for 10 days.
Outside the oil sector, the general strike lost steam. Most businesses opened and newspapers published.