October 3 2007
UNITED NATIONS --
Venezuela and the United States are on speaking terms to seek the release of three American hostages in Colombia, but an imminent thawing in relations is unlikely because of differences over crucial issues such as Iran, the Venezuelan foreign minister said.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Nicolás Maduro said Tuesday that he spent much of an hourlong meeting with Thomas Shannon, the top U.S. envoy for the Americas discussing the efforts of President Hugo Chávez to negotiate the release of the three U.S. defense contractors held captive by Colombian rebels since February 2003.
Maduro said Shannon requested the meeting and urged Venezuela to push the FARC rebels for proof that the Americans were still alive. The two also discussed a possible visit by the U.S. diplomat to Venezuela.
Monday's meeting on the sidelines of the U.S. General Assembly was a rare encounter between senior diplomats of two countries whose relations have been tense for years. The United States accuses Chávez of being a threat to stability in Latin America, and the Venezuelan leader is constantly criticizing U.S. ''imperialism'' under President Bush.
Maduro described his first-ever talks with Shannon as ''very positive'' and said he believed the United States and Venezuela could ``find common ground on the issue of a humanitarian accord to get these citizens home.''
But he said there were deep-rooted divisions between the two governments, citing the nuclear dispute with Iran as a key source of friction. Venezuela has pursued close relations with Iran -- whose hard-line president visited Chávez in Caracas last week -- and has defended the Islamic country against allegations that it is secretly seeking nuclear weapons.
''There are many issues that drive us apart, including the idea of some members of the Bush administration to go after Iran,'' Maduro said.
He claimed there was talk in the ''corridors of the U.N.'' of U.S. plans for a ''surprise attack against the peaceful country of Iran'' by the end of the year.
''That would be crazy, and the only thing that can stop it is a reaction by the American public, the people of the world and the governments of the world,'' Maduro said.
Washington has said it is addressing the Iran situation diplomatically, rather than militarily, though U.S. officials also say that all options are open. The United States and five other countries trying to resolve the impasse agreed last week to delay consideration of more sanctions against Iran to give the country more time to answer questions about its nuclear program.
A spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations dismissed Maduro's claim.
''The fact is that Bush has stated our goal of resolving the crisis with Iran diplomatically,'' Benjamin Chang said. ``Frankly, I would not put much stock in any rumors that the Venezuelan foreign minister is trying to give credence to.''