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Venezuela's Guaido confirms Norway mediation effort

Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaido talks during a meeting with professionals and technicians at the Caraca's Chamber of Commerce Auditorium, in Caracas on May 16, 2019
Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaido talks during a meeting with professionals and technicians at the Caraca's Chamber of Commerce Auditorium, in Caracas on May 16, 2019 AFP
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Caracas (AFP)

Opposition leader Juan Guaido said Thursday he sent delegates to Norway to join an attempt by Oslo to mediate in the Venezuela crisis, but denied talks were underway with President Nicolas Maduro's government.

"There are some envoys in Norway," Guaido told a rally of his supporters in Caracas. The Scandinavian country was trying to bring both sides together, but talks have not taken place, he said.

It was the first official confirmation that negotiations were being attempted after a months-long power struggle between the National Assembly leader and the socialist president, amid sometimes deadly street clashes.

"There is no negotiation whatsoever," Guaido made clear in comments to reporters. Instead, Norwegian officials were "trying to mediate" with both sides to bring them to the table.

Norway's NRK radio and television network, quoting anonymous sources, earlier reported that talks had taken place over "several days" at a secret Oslo location and the delegations were returning to Caracas on Thursday.

"We can neither confirm nor deny Norway's involvement in peace processes or dialogue initiatives," foreign ministry spokeswoman Ane Haavardsdatter Lunde told AFP.

Several South American media outlets also reported talks were held.

- Delegates in Oslo -

Speaking to reporters in Caracas, Guaido confirmed reports that National Assembly vice president Stalin Gonzalez and former lawmaker Gerardo Blyde were representing the opposition in Norway.

Media reports said Venezuelan Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez and the governor of Miranda province Hector Rodriguez represented Maduro's government.

Guaido insisted that the purpose of any negotiations must be the "cessation of the usurpation" by Maduro with a view to establishing a transitional government ahead of "free elections."

US-backed Guaido is recognized by dozens of countries as interim president after dismissing Maduro's presidency as "illegitimate" following his re-election last year in polls widely dismissed as rigged.

Maduro has been shunned by much of the international community for presiding over the country's economic collapse, which has led to shortages of basic goods -- forcing millions to flee -- as well as brutally suppressing dissent.

He retains the backing of major creditors Russia, China and Cuba, as well as the powerful military.

With the military support seen as key, Guaido tried to incite an uprising against Maduro on April 30 but only about 30 members of the armed forces joined him.

The socialist regime has since ramped up pressure on Guaido's allies and supporters, charging 10 lawmakers with treason.

- Dwindling crowds-

Crowds at Guaido's mass weekly protests in Caracas have dwindled in recent weeks, amid growing signs of weariness that despite a raft of international sanctions, Maduro still retains the upper hand.

Guaido said it was the second time Norway had invited representatives of both sides to the country for talks, though he did not elaborate.

Norway, home of the Nobel Peace Prize and the now-defunct Israeli-Palestinian Oslo accords, has a long tradition of playing the role of facilitator in peace processes around the world, including one in Colombia between the government and FARC leftist rebels in 2016.

Guaido meanwhile also confirmed that his representative in Washington, Carlos Vecchio, would go ahead with a meeting with military planners at the US Southern Command next week.

"On Monday we will have a meeting with Southern Command at the United States' Department of State," he said.

"My impression is that the government is trying to gain time, trying to divide and fracture the opposition," said Benigno Alarcon, conflict resolution expert at the Andros Bello Catholic University in Caracas.

"For the opposition, it means time to reorganize, much like in a war, to check their resources and rethink how they can win."

Guaido meanwhile scored a small diplomatic victory in Washington, where a group of leftist activists squatting at the Venezuelan embassy were cleared out by police.

They had been occupying the embassy in support of Maduro to prevent Guaido's representatives from taking it over.

The last Maduro envoys at the embassy left after the Organization of American States voted on April 10 to accept Guaido's envoy Vecchio to represent Venezuela at the Washington-based body.

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