Reuters International

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during the 16th PetroCaribe Ministerial Council in Caracas May 27, 2016. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition and top government officials said on Saturday they met with a group of mediators in the Dominican Republic to lay the groundwork for a dialogue amid a political standoff and a deepening economic crisis.

The OPEC nation is suffering a severe recession due to low oil prices and a collapsing socialist economic model. President Nicolas Maduro is locked in a standoff with the legislature after the opposition won a sweeping majority last year.

Both sides said they met with former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and former presidents Martin Torrijos of Panama and Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic. On Friday, the U.S. State Department announced Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken to Zapatero to welcome the initiative and said that the United States stood ready to help the mediators..

The opposition's Democratic Unity coalition said its representatives told the mediators that any talks with the government would have to include discussion of a recall referendum on Maduro's rule, the release of jailed opposition leaders, foreign humanitarian assistance to cope with chronic shortages and respect for laws passed by the congress.

"These points were taken by the ex-presidents to the representatives of the ruling party, with whom there has been no direct encounter whatsoever," the coalition said in a statement. "This has been an encounter with the mediators.

Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez wrote via Twitter that government officials had also met with the same mediators.

"The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela informs that it has held the first encounters for a dialogue between the government and the opposition," wrote Rodriguez.

Opposition leaders have been deeply sceptical of talks with the government, describing them as a stalling mechanism that would allow Maduro to gain time.

Former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who is leading the recall push, said in an interview this week that the only way to resolve the crisis was through a vote. The two sides held talks in 2014 amid months of violent anti-government street protests that left more than 40 people dead. Both sides agree that the dialogue did not produce any substantive agreements. Opposition leaders accuse the National Electoral Council of stalling their effort to recall Maduro, whose popularity in March dropped to 27 percent according to local pollster Datanalisis. They also say the ruling Socialist Party has used a pro-government Supreme Court to shoot down nearly every law passed by Congress since the opposition won a two-thirds majority of seats in December. Maduro insists his government is the victim of an "economic war" led by business leaders with the backing of Washington, which has been an ideological adversary of Caracas since the presidency of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Gareth Jones and W Simon)

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