Venezuela to ship more fuel to Syria as crackdown spreads

CARACAS Tue Mar 6, 2012 8:18am EST

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela is readying a third shipment of diesel to the government of Syria even as President Bashar al-Assad intensifies a crackdown against protesters, said a Venezuelan lawmaker on Monday.

Last month, Venezuela's government confirmed it had sent at least two shipments of fuel to Syria, potentially undermining Western sanctions as a rare supplier to the increasingly isolated Assad regime.

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who is in Cuba recovering from surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, has been a vociferous supporter of Syria as part of a self-styled international "anti-imperialist" alliance.

Venezuelan state oil firm PDVSA shipped cargo in February aboard the Negra Hipolita vessel after the same tanker carried a first shipment in November.

"The information we have received is that the Negra Hipolita is on the Venezuelan coast, and according to the agreement, Venezuela is ready to continue supplying diesel," said congressman Adel El Zabayar from the government's socialist party.

El Zabayar did not say when the third shipment would be sent.

The PDVSA shipments appeared to be carried out under a 2010 agreement between the two nations in which Venezuela provides diesel in exchange for food and commodities such as olive oil.

It is not clear if PDVSA is negotiating directly with Syria's state oil firm Sytrol, which has been blacklisted by the United Sates and the European Union even though there is no blanket embargo on supplying fuel to Syria due to humanitarian concerns.

"The decision of the government is to give all our support to Syria," El Zabayar said.

The United Nations says more than 7,500 civilians have died in Syria's crackdown on protests and Assad has refused to back down in the face of international pressure.

Syria's military pursued rebels on several fronts on Monday after eliminating an opposition bastion in the central city of Homs following a 26-day siege.

The fuel is crucial to Syria's embattled government as former trading partners have dropped out for fear of violating international sanctions.

It is not clear when Chavez, 57, will return from Cuba after surgery but in his absence foreign minister Nicolas Maduro roundly condemned international pressure on both Syria and Iran, which is facing sanctions over suspicions about its nuclear program.

(Writing by Mica Rosenberg)

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