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article imageVenezuela accepts 'witness' to ease talks with opposition

By AFP     Mar 27, 2014 in World

Following weeks of violent protests, Venezuela's leftist government agreed to having an outside "witness" to ease stalled talks with its political opposition.

The deal, brokered by a group of South American foreign ministers, is aimed at ending the impasse between the government of President Nicolas Maduro and his political opponents, some of whom have been jailed for allegedly inciting violence.

Since early February at least 34 people have been killed in anti-government protests fueled by anger over soaring crime, hyperinflation and a shortage of basic household goods.

- 'Good faith witness' -

After a two-day visit to Venezuela, ministers from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) said Thursday that Maduro had agreed to have a "good faith witness to facilitate dialogue".

It was unclear who the "witness" would be.

Dismissed opposition deputy Maria Corina Machado speaks next to Peruvian deputy Martin Belaunde (L) ...
Dismissed opposition deputy Maria Corina Machado speaks next to Peruvian deputy Martin Belaunde (L), during a protest against the Venezuelan government in Caracas on March 26, 2014
Juan Barreto, AFP

In Bogota, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said that foreign ministers from three countries would give "the final touches" to the agreement "so that dialogue can begin".

Santos said that the Venezuelan government agreed to the talks after ministers visiting Caracas met with the opposition, students, religious and human rights groups, and Maduro himself.

Maduro has attacked the opposition as "fascists" and claimed that they want to topple his government with help from the CIA.

Two opposition mayors have been arrested and sent to prison, while an opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, is in jail awaiting trial. Scores of other protesters are also behind bars.

Maduro -- elected to office one year ago by a controversial wafer-thin margin -- called for talks soon after the protests began, but the main Venezuelan opposition group and student protesters have refused as long as they have jailed supporters.

A moderate opposition group said Wednesday it was ready to talk to Maduro, in a rare potential step forward following weeks of unrest.

"We are ready for a transparent, balanced and fair dialogue, a public one with a national or international good-faith facilitator... that can mediate if needed," Ramon Aveledo told broadcaster Globovision.

Aveledo, of the Democratic Unity group (MUD) that seeks reform without ousting the elected socialist regime, spoke after meeting with the UNASUR ministers.

- Sanctions on the horizon? -

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua (L) talks with his Mexican counterpart Jose Meade after a mee...
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua (L) talks with his Mexican counterpart Jose Meade after a meeting in Caracas on March 27, 2014
Juan Barreto, AFP

In Washington, a US official said sanctions are being weighed if Venezuela fails to foster serious talks to resolve the crisis.

Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson urged Maduro's government to provide "democratic space for the opposition".

Sanctions could be an "important tool" if the possibility of dialogue between the government and its adversaries stalls, she said.

Speaking in Spanish to reporters via teleconference, Jacobson said the United States is considering "peaceful measures," excluding potential military action as an option.

But Washington would first consult with its allies in the Americas before any sanctions.

"We believe that it's very important to work with our allies in the region on the way to implement any type of sanction," so that any such measures would be more effective, Jacobson said.

Washington and Caracas have not had ambassadors since 2010, even though the United States is oil-rich Venezuela's most important customer for its main export.

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