CARACAS (AFP) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro sat down for talks with arch-rival Henrique Capriles on Thursday in a first meeting with opposition leaders to end two months of deadly street protests.
Just one year after succeeding his late mentor, iconic leftist leader Hugo Chavez, Mr Maduro agreed to an unprecedented face-to-face meeting with the opposition, after the UNASUR group of South American nations offered to mediate.
The meeting, which involved about 20 representatives from both sides, was monitored by diplomats from the Vatican and the foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador. It was broadcast on national television and radio.
"Violence can never bring peace to a country," the Vatican's envoy Aldo Giordano said, reading a letter from Pope Francis. "In the encounter between differences, we favor the common good."
Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino stressed that Mr Maduro had "the love and support of the presidents of the countries (in the region) who are quite hopeful and optimistic that everything will succeed" in Venezuela.
The meeting, which follows several unsuccessful calls from Mr Maduro for the opposition to participate in "peace conferences", involved the secretaries of the main opposition parties, as well as three opposition governors.
But leaders of the radical opposition wing like Maria Corina Machado, a promoter of the so-called "exit" strategy to oust Mr Maduro, did not participate.
The talks aim to end violent clashes between security forces and protesters that have rocked the country since early February, leaving at least 39 people dead and more than 600 wounded.
However, statements from both sides on the eve of the dialogue have raised doubts as to whether a breakthrough could be achieved.
Mr Maduro this week suggested that the talks should be in the form of a "debate" rather than negotiations, since concluding a deal with the opposition would make him a "traitor to Chavismo". Speaking for the other side, opposition lawmaker Julio Borges told local radio that he would attend the meeting "without the slightest feeling of trust" toward the Maduro government.
Protesters are angered by Venezuela's soaring crime, high inflation and a shortage of basic goods.
Mr Maduro, Chavez's elected heir, has lashed out at the demonstrations, branding them a "fascist" US-backed plot to overthrow his government.
His administration has cracked down on the demonstrators, putting at least three opposition leaders in prison.
Opposition leaders were divided as to whether they should even engage in dialogue with the government.
Capriles, the Miranda state governor who lost a tightly contested election to Mr Maduro last year, said the dialogue would expose the weakness and moral bankruptcy of the regime.
"I'm going to defend the truth, and when it is our turn to speak, there will be quaking in Miraflores" presidential palace, he said on the eve of the meeting.
Jailed Caracas borough mayor Leopoldo Lopez, representing a more radical voice in the opposition, rejected the talks and urged supporters not to take part.
"You cannot hold a dialogue while also holding political prisoners and engaging in political persecution," he wrote via Twitter.
Lopez, head of the Popular Will party, one of most uncompromising anti-Chavista factions, has been held in a military prison since his February 18 arrest during an opposition protest rally.
The government last week formally charged Lopez with inciting violence and other protest-related counts.
While the interlocutors were torn about whether talks would prove fruitful, there has been strong international backing for some sort of negotiated resolution to end the violence.
The United Nations office in Venezuela has expressed deep concern over the "high human cost" of anti-government protests.
The Spanish government has suspended exports of anti-riot and police gear to its former colony and urged Venezuela "to re-establish a climate of reconciliation which has broken down".