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Venezuelan Supreme Court Suspends Work

Supporters of Hugo Chavez surged into the streets Tuesday for a second straight night of raucous protests -- trying to drown out opposition demands that the leftist president give up power.

Hundreds of "Chavistas," as the president's followers are known, ringed the headquarters of the private Globovision television network and rallied at the headquarters of the state oil monopoly.

The new protests came amid the tumult of a nine-day-old national opposition strike that has created shortages of food and drinking water and disrupted the country's oil industry. Earlier Tuesday, thousands of opposition demonstrators marched in the capital, Caracas, to protest Chavista demonstrations at media outlets and an assault by Chavez supporters on a regional branch of Globovision.

Tensions were further raised when nearly half the judges on the Supreme Court decided Tuesday to suspend work to protest what they said was political harassment by the Chavez government.

Eight of 20 magistrates plan to work only on urgent cases of national interest, said Magistrate Alberto Martini. The protest -- which would disrupt most court work -- came after the pro-Chavez Congress fired court vice president Franklin Arriechi, saying he wasn't qualified.

Martini accused secret police of investigating justices as part of a campaign of "threats and harassment."

There was no immediate government reaction to the judges' announcement.

Chavez had long controlled the Supreme Court, but that changed in August when justices defied Chavez by absolving four high-ranking military officers of charges that they led an April coup.

Labor, business and opposition political groups called the strike on Dec. 2 to demand an early referendum on Chavez's presidency, which is scheduled to end in 2007. They upped their demand to Chavez's ouster after three people were killed and 28 wounded at an opposition rally on Friday. No one has been charged in the shootings.

The strike has paralyzed the oil industry, which provides 70 percent of Venezuela's export revenue and is a key supplier to the United States. The government has dispatched troops to take over gasoline deliveries and guard against unrest in Caracas.

One of the world's largest oil refineries, on the Caribbean island of Curacao, halted processing heavy crude, and may have to do the same with medium and light crude by the end of the month, because the strike has cut its supplies, officials said.

Venezuelans waited for hours again Tuesday for gasoline, formed long lines at banks and stocked up on food and water as the strike created shortages at supermarkets, pharmacies and service stations.

Agostin Pastana waited in vain for a lunch-hour crowd at his Caracas eatery.

"I've got a restaurant, but no beer," he said. "This strike is affecting everyone. But I'll stick it out until the end, until we get a way out."

Venezuela's opposition took to the streets Tuesday to protest a coordinated series of noisy demonstrations against news outlets and journalists by Chavez's backers.

The night before, Chavistas surrounded several radio, television and newspaper stations and trashed the Globovision station in the western state of Zulia. Chavez accuses the media of supporting the general strike.

The Globovision television station broadcast images of its ransacked Zulia headquarters, saying Chavez supporters broke windows, furniture and equipment. Demonstrators also surrounded Radio Caracas Television, Venevision, Televen and CMT in Caracas and regional television stations in four other cities.

In Washington, the State Department praised Venezuela's security forces for protecting media outlets from demonstrators and urged both sides to work with the Organization of American States as it seeks a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

Cesar Gaviria, the OAS secretary general, condemned "acts that put freedom of expression at grave risk" and urged Chavez to maintain order.

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

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel -- a former journalist -- said Chavez didn't order the actions against media outlets and countered that state TV has been harassed by opposition supporters.

On Sunday, Chavez accused most of Venezuela's news media of waging a "terrorist and bloody" war against his leftist government. He accused the opposition of pursuing the same tactics that led to his brief ouster in April -- at that time, a general strike, protests and a military coup -- all backed by the local media.

A populist former army paratrooper elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000, Chavez refuses to call elections that could cut his term, though he's offered to take on challengers in a binding referendum next year.