Venezuela government talking with 'democratic' opposition in Norway

GENEVA/CARACAS (Reuters) - Talks are underway in Norway between Venezuela’s government and “democratic” opponents, an envoy said on Thursday, in a possible search for a mediated solution after the opposition’s failure to spark a military uprising against President Nicolas Maduro.

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“Yes, there are talks between the Bolivarian government and the democratic sectors of the opposition,” Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Jorge Valero, told reporters, denouncing U.S. interference.

Calling Maduro a dictator, U.S. President Donald Trump has tightened sanctions against his government and spearheaded international recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaido, who in January invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency.

A senior U.S. administration official, who asked not to be named, said the only topic for discussion in talks should be Maduro’s departure and a transition to a new democratically elected government.

“Maduro’s illegitimate regime is hoping to stall for time to reestablish its hold on the country, exactly as it did during the 2017 Santo Domingo dialogue,” the official said, referring to earlier failed talks.

Guaido, who denounces Maduro’s 2018 re-election as fraudulent, called for Venezuela’s military to rise up on April 30, but his push quickly petered out and the military’s top brass has since then sworn allegiance to Maduro.

Maduro calls Guaido a U.S. puppet who is trying to foment a coup.

Venezuelan Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez and Miranda state governor Hector Rodriguez of the ruling Socialist Party both traveled to Oslo, according to opposition sources. Opposition legislator Stalin Gonzalez and political advisers have also gone, they said.

Norway’s Foreign Ministry said its norm was not to comment on possible roles in ongoing or potential peace talks. “We strongly encourage the parties to find a political and peaceful solution in order to avoid further escalation,” a ministry spokeswoman said.

Norway has a tradition of conflict mediation, including assistance with Colombia’s 2016 peace deal between the government and FARC rebels.

When asked about the talks in Norway, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York: “We’re very much aware of what is going on and very much supportive of this process.”

Guaido, in a speech on Thursday, confirmed opposition envoys were in Norway, which was mediating between both sides, but said they would not get involved in a “false negotiation that does not lead to the end of the usurpation.”

Many Venezuelan opposition supporters are skeptical about mediation talks, given that past rounds have failed, divided the opposition and, in their view, merely bought time for Maduro to consolidate power and quell street protests.

Guaido said he would meet later on Thursday with participants in a diplomatic effort between European and Latin American countries, known as the International Contact Group on Venezuela (ICG), which aims to negotiate an end to the crisis.

European Union Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said the ICG had a sent a political mission to Venezuela to meet with “all national relevant actors.”

Reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva, Gwladys Fouche in Oslo, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Mayela Armas and Corina Pons in Caracas, and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish and Rosalba O’Brien