Hugo Chavez made his announcement at a gathering in Vienna of activists and representatives of social movements and non-governmental groups on Saturday evening.

Chavez worked out a similar deal to deliver discount heating oil this past winter to needy Americans in parts of the eastern United States.

"I'd like to do the same here in Europe," he said.

The so-called alternative summit was held in parallel to a three-day summit of leaders from the European Union, Latin America and the Caribbean that concluded earlier on Saturday in the Austrian capital.

"I want to humbly offer support to the poorest people who do not have resources for central heating in winter and make sure that support arrives," Chavez said.

He added that Venezuela had two oil refineries in Germany and one in Britain but did not provide details about which countries could benefit from his proposal.

He went on to say that Venezuelan ambassadors in Europe were looking into the matter.

"You Europeans can help us greatly. Your European social networks can make sure the support arrives where it should," Chavez told the conference.

This past winter, Venezuela delivered cut-rate oil to low-income Americans through Citgo, the Houston-based subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company.

Anti-US rhetoric

Some Chavez critics said the heating aid programme was an attempt to embarrass George Bush, the US president, and was an attempt to score political points and not an act of charity.

Chavez (R) described the US
empire as a paper tiger

In other comments during his speech, which lasted more than two hours, Chavez, known for his anti-American rhetoric, said: "The final hours of the North American empire have arrived.

"So now we have to say to the empire: 'We're not afraid of you. You are a paper tiger'."

Chavez appealed to the audience to unite and promote social change. For example, he said, more business should be steered towards smaller companies to the benefit of labourers in poorer regions, and that doing so would cut out intermediaries.

"We have to unite all possible movements, otherwise the world is not going to change," he said.