The Venezuelan opposition officially declared an end to a 63-day general strike that has crippled the economy, but said a poll of voters' desire to see President Hugo Chavez's mandate cut had been an "overwhelming" success.
The recall petition is aimed at allowing opponents of the president to voice opinions about possible options for cutting short the populist president's term, which is scheduled to stretch through 2006.
An although the strike was formally ended, it will continue in the oil sector, according to opposition leaders, who said its struggle against the government of Chavez was just entering a "new phase."
"The Democratic Coordinating Committee announced that tonight we are entering a long-expected and more trying new phase in our struggle," said opposition spokesman Timoteo Zambrano.
He said although the strike was ending, the protesters intend to stand by thousands of employees of Petroleos de Venezuela, the state-run oil company, who have been dismissed by the Chavez government.
"Our struggle will now assume new forms, and we will pursue our goals at the negotiation table," Zambrano said.
The strike has caused Venezuela billions of dollars in losses, largely because it slashed oil shipments from the world's fifth largest oil exporter.
The oil sector had prior to the strike produced of 2.8 million barrels per day.
Chavez said Sunday that production had now reached 1.8 million barrels per day and that the world's largest refinery, in Amuey, was back on line.
Production fell to 250,000 barrels a day at the height of the strike in December.
The Organization of American States and former US President Jimmy Carter, meanwhile, have attempted to bring government and opposition together.
But ongoing clashes between Chavez supporters and police Sunday left at least five people injured, as opponents queued to sign the non-binding petition on cutting short his term.
By late Sunday, opposition had garnered more than 3.7 million signatures -- comfortably above expectations, leaders said.
Opposition leader Carlos Ortega, who heads the Venezuelan Workers' Confederation (CTV), said Sunday's vote had been an "overwhelming victory," with a massive turnout.
"The results that we are getting in Caracas and the interior of the country are beating by a long way what we had projected," said Jesus Torrealba, General Secretary of the opposition umbrella group, Democratic Coordinator.
He said the figure surpassed that obtained by Chavez in the 1998 presidential elections, and that a possibility exists the petition could be used to move forward toward constitutional reform to cut short Chavez's mandate.
Despite the official electoral council's failure to endorse Sunday's vote, opposition went ahead with its decision to collect signatures, at some 3,400 collection points set up around Venezuela.
The voting tables opened at 6:00 am (1000 GMT), and had 30,000 volunteer helpers in attendance. Some 11 million voters were invited to put their signature to the survey.
One of the options would be to seek a formal recall referendum, which could be held from mid-August, when Chavez hits his term's midpoint.
Under the constitution, the opposition needs to get the vote of at least 20 percent of the population, some 2.2 million signatures.
A mid-term recall, for Chavez, could come as early as August 19, and it is the only vote he has said repeatedly that he will accept if it is requested at the polls.
Opposition business, labor and political leaders launched the strike over what they say is Chavez's autocratic style, and especially his decree of 49 controversial laws governing the economy, 47 of which petition signers are also demanding be rescinded.
Copyright 2003 AFP