Officials: Progress made in talks on ending Venezuela crisis

Officials in both Venezuela's government and opposition say advances have been made in negotiations on breaking the country's political standoff and further talks will be held next week

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Officials in both Venezuela's government and opposition reported Thursday that advances have been made in negotiations on breaking the country's political standoff and said further talks will be held next week.

The upbeat assessment came after a third round of talks between the opposition and President Nicolas Maduro's administration concluded late Wednesday. Norway is facilitating the negotiations.

The officials declined to give specifics on what was discussed during three days of talks this week on the Caribbean island of Barbados.

But the fact that the sides will continue to meet was taken as a positive sign after months of turmoil that saw opposition leader Juan Guaidó attempt to lead a military rebellion to force Maduro from power, prompting the embattled socialist to jail or pursue several opponents.

"It is foreseen that the parties will carry out consultations in order to advance in the negotiations," Norway's foreign minister, Ine Eriksen Søreidesaid, said in a statement.

Negotiators have decided to leave the thorny subject of elections until the end of the talks, the officials from both sides told The Associated Press. They agreed to discuss the negotiations only if granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about them.

With hardliners on both sides seeking to undermine the talks, Norway cautioned the opposition and government to refrain from spoiling any progress, saying they should show "utmost caution" in any comments about the talks.

The U.S.-backed opposition is demanding early presidential elections, contending that Maduro's re-election last year was invalid. Powerful socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello, however, said Wednesday that early elections were a non-starter.

Maduro and Guaidó are facing off over control of a once-wealthy oil nation mired in a deepening political and economic crisis that is fueling one of the worst outflows of migrants in Latin America's history.

"Venezuelans need answers and results," tweeted lawmaker Stalin Gonzalez, who led the opposition's delegation in Barbados. "Our delegation will consult to move forward and put an end to the suffering of Venezuelans." He gave no details on the talks.

Few have held out hope for success after several rounds at the negotiating table in recent years have failed to find a solution and Venezuela's crisis spiraled deeper.

Maduro often says he is willing to negotiate to end hostilities and bring peace to the South American nation, but the opposition accuses the socialist government of using talks as a stalling tactic while continuing to threaten, torture and kill political opponents.

The Vatican extended its institutional prestige in 2016, attempting to mediate a dialogue that the pope later said "went up in smoke," placing blame on Maduro. A year later, a fresh round of talks in the Dominican Republic also fizzled with no constructive outcome.

Meanwhile, crippling U.S. oil sanctions have exacerbated a crisis marked by food, fuel and medicine shortages. An estimated 4 million people, or more than 10% of Venezuela's population, have fled the country in recent years, the United Nations says.

Also on Thursday, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Venezuela's military intelligence agency, which is accused of torturing to death a navy captain in its custody.

This latest move by the U.S. Treasury Department to pressure Maduro targets Venezuela's General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence. The sanctions appear to be largely symbolic because they prohibit Americans' dealings with the agency, which likely has few already.

They stem from the death of Capt. Rafael Acosta, arrested on suspicion of plotting to assassinate Maduro. His attorney says he showed signs of torture before dying after a court appearance.

"The politically motivated arrest and tragic death ... was unwarranted and unacceptable," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

Mnuchin said the U.S. is committed to ending the Maduro regime's "inhumane treatment of political opponents, innocent civilians, and members of the military in an effort to suppress dissent."

The Trump administration has sanctioned dozens of top Venezuelan officials, including Maduro, accusing them of stealing from the once-wealthy nation's coffers for personal gain while using the funds to repress critics.

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, recently published a report accusing Venezuelan officials of human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and measures to erode democratic institutions.

Maduro says the United State seeks to replace him with a puppet government headed by Guaidó amid an economic war aimed at stealing Venezuela's vast oil resources.