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Chavez Supporters Ransack TV Stations in Second Week of Strike

Hundreds of supporters of President Hugo Chavez ransacked one TV station and surrounded others across Venezuela, accusing them of backing a general strike to force his ouster.

"Shut it down!" chanted protesters in front of Globovision television in Caracas on Monday. Waving Venezuelan flags, demonstrators spray-painted the station's walls.

Globovision broadcast images of its ransacked headquarters in the western state of Zulia, claiming Chavez supporters forced their way in, destroying windows, equipment and furniture.

Demonstrators also surrounded Radio Caracas Television, Venevision, Televen and CMT in Caracas, as well as a regional television stations in the cities of Maracay, Merida, Maracaibo and Barquisimeto. They also protested against a newspaper in Maracay.

"The people are in the streets defending their values and principles," said Interior Minister Diosdado Cabello, in a televised address during the protests. "The government doesn't want violence."

But OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria condemned the pro-Chavez protests against the media, saying they "threatened freedom of expression." The Organization of American States is mediating talks between the government and opposition.

Globovision television and other private news media said Tuesday they would protest the intimidation to the OAS' Inter-American Human Rights Commission. The commission has urged Chavez to guarantee the security of Venezuelan media in the past.

Chavez accuses the press of backing a general strike seeking his ouster. The overnight protests came after government television and radio summoned Chavez supporters to "defend democracy" in the streets.

The strike, in its ninth day, has crippled the oil industry — the world's fifth-largest and the source of 70 percent of Venezuela's export earnings. The shutdown increased pressure on Chavez to give in to opposition demands to call a referendum on his government or resign.

Critics charge that the leftist Chavez has hurt the economy, polarized the South American nation along class lines and is unfit to govern. Chavez accuses the opposition of trying to spark a coup against his elected government.

During negotiations Monday, the government agreed to discuss a timetable for presidential elections, Gaviria said. There was no immediate comment from the government on that, and it was unclear if Chavez was considering an early vote.

A former army paratrooper elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000, Chavez has insisted Venezuela's constitution doesn't allow a referendum until midway through a presidential term — in his case, August 2003.

The opposition had demanded that he call a nonbinding referendum on his rule. Strike leaders raised their demands after three people were killed and 28 wounded at an opposition rally Friday, saying that Chavez must either call a binding referendum or resign.

On Sunday, Chavez accused Venezuela's media of waging a "terrorist and bloody" war against his government. Last week, some newspapers didn't publish for two days out of solidarity with the strike.

Journalists accuse Chavez of inciting violence against reporters. In Maracay, armed Chavez activists assaulted at least seven journalists covering the strike, El Siglo newspaper reported.

"This is worrying. We are at the mercy of the Chavistas," said Ever Garcia, the director of El Aragueno newspaper, which was surrounded by Chavez partisans in Maracay on Monday.

Meanwhile, the strike was gaining strength.

Production at Venezuela's two largest refineries, Paraguana and El Palito in western Venezuela, was paralyzed, Ali Rodriguez, the president of state oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela, confirmed. The Jose refinery in eastern Venezuela could shut down in 48 hours, said Luis Torres, the refinery's director of maintenance.

"We are threatened with a national disaster," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez urged strikers to end their "sabotage," warning that gasoline shortages and electricity blackouts were imminent. He said the government, which temporarily seized truck fleets for distribution, was guaranteeing gasoline supplies for now.

Venezuelans waited for hours for gasoline and stocked up on food and water as the strike created shortages at markets, banks, pharmacies and service stations.

Strike leader Carlos Ortega said the strike will continue until Chavez leaves office.

"The people you never listened to are going to oust you," Ortega said.

Dozens of domestic flights were canceled. Several pilots of the Venezuelan airline Aeropostal Alas de Venezuela walked off the job Monday, said pilot Pedro Camero.

American Airlines canceled its night flights to Caracas because of the turmoil. Only three of the airline's 10 daily flights arrived in Caracas on Monday.

Venezuela's crisis caused January heating oil to rise 1.09 cents to 75.82 cents per gallon on the New York Mercantile Exchange. January crude increased 27 cents to $27.20 a barrel.

Polls suggest Chavez has the support of up to 45 percent of Venezuela's poor, but his overall popularity is about 30 percent.