CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has agreed to enter talks with his country's opposition with the help of an outside facilitator.
A group of South American foreign ministers made the announcement Thursday after two days of meetings with government officials, student protesters and human rights groups aimed at bringing about dialogue after weeks of deadly unrest.
The diplomats didn't say whether what it called a "good faith witness" to talks would come from Venezuela or another country, casting doubt on whether the formula for talks would satisfy President Nicolas Maduro's opponents, many of whom resent the international community's failure to criticize the government's recent actions in putting down protests.
Earlier in the day, the president of Colombia said foreign ministers from three countries, which he did not name, were working out the terms.
Maduro's socialist administration announced on Thursday morning that it had accepted another of the delegation's suggestions: the creation of a human rights commission that will report directly to the president and look into allegations of abuse by security forces.
Maduro's year-old government has been widely criticized for its harsh crackdown on opponents protesting galloping inflation, rampant crime and shortages of basic goods like toilet paper and corn flour. Weeks of clashes between protesters and loyalists have left at least 32 people dead. In their statement Thursday, the delegates called upon all parties to renounce violence.
Hours before the announcements, the U.S. State Department issued its strongest response yet to the ongoing crisis, saying it would consider imposing sanctions against Venezuela if Maduro doesn't reconcile with opponents. South American diplomats have been at odds with the U.S. over how to handle the country's volatility.
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 as efficiently as possible.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. was considering all options to address human rights concerns in Venezuela, including sanctions being pushed by U.S. lawmakers for weeks. He didn't provide details about what would trigger such a response, and said he was reluctant to damage an already weak economy.
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 runaway inflation that hit 57 percent in February.
Associated Press writer Luis Alonso Lugo reported from Washington.