A federal judge handed a victory to native Alaska villagers, further complicating stalled efforts to settle the environmental damages caused by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin, who repeatedly castigated Justice Department lawyers, allowed attorneys for the native Alaskans to take depositions from top Exxon officials."I'm very concerned that these people's rights may be interfered with," Sporkin said, ruling in favor of the native Alaskans.

"I'll give you the right to take depositions" from Exxon officials, Sporkin told attorneys for the native Alaskans.

The main Exxon case is before U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland in Alaska. But a group of native Alaskans has pressed an aggressive legal case in Washington.

Exxon has until May 4 to withdraw from a plea-bargain deal with the government. Holland last week stunned legal observers by rejecting a $100 million criminal fine agreed to by Exxon and government lawyers. He said the deal was not expensive enough to deter polluters.

The judge's rejection of the criminal penalty threatens to unravel the total civil settlement of $900 million involving Exxon, the U.S. government and the state of Alaska.

Exxon says its lawyers are preparing for trial but that another deal with the government is still possible.

The group of five native Alaska villages and three native corporations say the proposed $1.1 billion out-of-court settlement will not compensate them fairly for their losses from the 11 million gallon oil spill March 24, 1989.

The massive spill killed hundreds of thousands of birds and sea otters and caused extensive shoreline damage in vital fish-breeding areas. The villagers have depended upon subsistence fishing for centuries.