Venezuela accepts outside mediators for negotiations

The government of President Maduro agrees to external support for a dialogue with the opposition to end weeks of unrest

Following weeks of violent protests, Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro agreed on Thursday to enter talks with the country’s opposition with the help of an external mediator.

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

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua on Friday praised his foreign counterparts for their efforts to seek a peaceful solution to protests, which have been fueled by soaring crime rates and a shortage of basic household goods, and which have claimed 34 lives since early February.

"We are conscious that our homeland's destiny should be marked by peace," Jaua told local media. "Words can be taken back, but what cannot be revoked is a bullet to the head."

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.

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

Santos said 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 López, is in jail awaiting trial. Scores of other protesters are also behind bars.

Maduro — elected to office one year ago by a 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, which seeks reform without ousting the elected socialist regime, spoke after meeting with the UNASUR ministers.

Hours before the announcement, the U.S. State Department issued its strongest comment yet on the troubles in Venezuela, saying it would consider imposing sanctions if Maduro didn't reconcile with his opponents.

The State Department's top official for Latin America said sanctions could become an "important tool" to pressure Maduro.

"If there is no movement, no possibility of dialogue, if there's no democratic space for the opposition, obviously we have to think about this, and we are thinking about this," Assistant Secretary of State Roberta S. Jacobson told reporters in Washington.

She added that the U.S. would work with its partners in the region to impose any such measures.

Maduro's administration responded that it categorically rejected U.S. interference in Venezuela's internal matters.

Also on Thursday, a spokesman for the International Monetary Fund warned Venezuela that it must restore balance to its economy and offered technical assistance to tame inflation that hit 57 percent in February.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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