Venezuela unions reject Christmas truce offer


Venezuelan opposition groups have rejected an appeal by the government of President Hugo Chavez for a truce over Christmas as the prospect loomed of a holiday overshadowed by a crippling general strike.

"Not one step back, the strike continues," declared Mr Carlos Ortega, an anti-Chavez union boss.

Opposition strikers, an alliance of political parties, unions and business leaders, vowed again to continue the stoppage that has hobbled the vital oil industry and caused widespread fuel and food shortages.

The disruptions in the world's No. 5 oil exporter have also rattled global petroleum markets. US crude oil futures in New York settled up $1.45 at $31.75 a barrel - hitting two-year highs late yesterday - amid fears over Venezuelan oil disruptions and the growing threat of war in Iraq.

Three weeks into the grueling shutdown, government and opposition leaders appeared no closer to breaking their political deadlock over the president's rule despite increasing pressure from the international community.

In a peaceful protest last night, thousands of anti-government demonstrators marched through eastern Caracas in a torch-lit procession to demand Chavez step down.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel earlier urged a holiday truce and said the government was willing to hold peace talks through Christmas. But the opposition quickly rebuffed his informal call for a truce.

"What response do you expect from a people who this regime considers an enemy? The people are speaking, but this regime is deaf," union leader Mr Ortega told reporters.