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Venezuela's output of oil nears level before long strike

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela's crude oil production has surpassed 2.5 million barrels a day — nearing the country's output level before a crippling two-month strike, the energy and mines minister said Thursday.

Output "currently stands above 2.5 million barrels" a day, Rafael Ramirez told state news agency Venpres.

Venezuela is trying to emerge from a failed general strike to force President Hugo Chavez's resignation or early elections. The protest ended last month. It was strongest in the oil industry, the source of half of government revenue and 80 percent of export earnings.

Venezuela was the world's fifth-largest oil exporter before the strike began Dec. 2, producing 3.2 million barrels a day. Output plunged to less than 200,000 barrels a day at the height of the walkout. Venezuela is still having to import gasoline because of difficulties in bringing refineries back online.

Chavez has fired 15,000 of the state-oil monopoly's 35,000 employees for joining the strike. Chavez said he can restore Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. without the sacked workers, who were mostly administrative staff.

International industry experts have warned that Venezuela lacks the manpower and funds to fully restore production in older fields, where oil is harder to extract. Experts had expressed doubt that Venezuelan output could surpass 2 million barrels a day.