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Venezuela's Chavez offers heat to Alaska villages

With heating oil prices approaching $10 a gallon in rural Alaska and reports of neighbors stealing fuel from neighbors to warm their homes, a Venezuela-owned oil company plans to supply free fuel to villages again this winter.

That's what a Citgo executive who oversees the company's free heating oil program told the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council earlier this month, said council director Steve Osborne.

Citgo has provided roughly 15,000 Alaska village households 100 gallons of heating oil each for the past two winters. If the company donates the same amount this year, some families will save as much as $1,000 on their fuel bills. It's part of a program providing assistance to low-income communities in 23 states.

In the Inupiat village of Noatak, north of Kotzebue, heating oil sells for $9.79 a gallon. Villagers are crossing their fingers for the Citgo assistance while locking their fuel tanks under plywood and padlocks to protect them from thieves, said Eugene Monroe Sr., a local councilman.

"You got to be watching your tank all the time," he said.

But the free oil comes with political baggage, particularly in an oil-rich state with a potential presidential candidate for governor.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a proud socialist who once referred to President Bush as "the devil" before the United Nations. He teamed with Iran to fund other nations' efforts to, as Chavez put it, "liberate themselves from the (U.S.) imperialist yoke."

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