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Venezuelan troops seize food

Published: 12:14PM Thursday January 24, 2008 Source: Reuters

Venezuela's top food company has accused troops of illegally seizing more than 500 tonnes of food from its trucks as part of President Hugo Chavez's campaign to stem shortages.

The leftist Chavez this week created a state food distributor and loosened some price controls, seeking to end months of shortages for staples like milk and eggs that have caused long lines and upset his supporters in the OPEC nation.

The highly publicised campaign has also included government crackdowns on accused smuggling, with the military seizing 1,600 tonnes of food and sending 1,200 troops to the border with Colombia.

Jose Anzola, a director of food company Alimentos Polar, told reporters that troops stopped 27 of its trucks over the last three days and described the seizures as "illegal, arbitrary and irresponsible."

Troops said they halted the transport of 350 tonnes of food to states along the Colombian border on suspicion of smuggling, he said. Another 165 tonnes were impounded in an eastern state on accusations of hoarding, he added.

Venezuela's National Guard did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Polar's statements.

Polar, one of the country's largest private employers and best-known brands, produces and distributes grocery products including corn flour, a central element of Venezuelan cooking, and the country's most popular beer.

Business leaders say shortages of these products are caused by strict price controls, which have lagged inflation that is Latin America's highest.

Chavez is focusing on practical issues like food supply and crime after losing a December referendum that would have let him run for re-election indefinitely and expand his self-styled revolution.

He announced an increase of more than 30% in the retail price of milk in an effort to ease shortages that have created headaches for consumers of all social classes.

He also threatened to expropriate companies selling food above regulated prices.

"Anyone who is distributing food ... and is speculating, we must intervene and we must expropriate (the business) and put it in the hands of the state and the communities," Chavez said during the inauguration of a new state-run market in Caracas.

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