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US officials travel to Venezuela, a Russian ally, for talks – source

US officials travel to Venezuela, a Russian ally, for talks – source

WASHINGTON, March 5 (Reuters) – Senior U.S. officials traveled to Venezuela on Saturday for talks with the government of President Nicolas Maduro, seeking to assess whether Caracas is ready to distance itself from close ally Russia in the part of its invasion of Ukraine, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The trip, the highest US visit to Venezuela in years, was part of a US effort to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some analysts also see U.S.-sanctioned Venezuela as a potential alternative source of oil supplies if Washington attempts to restrict energy shipments from Moscow.

U.S. and Venezuelan officials held a series of talks on Saturday but reached no agreement, the source told Reuters on condition of anonymity. It was unclear if another meeting would take place.

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The visit, which involved senior White House and State Department officials, was first reported by The New York Times.

The White House and State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The US government has largely avoided direct contact with Maduro’s socialist government in recent years.

The two countries severed diplomatic ties in 2019 amid a campaign of US sanctions and diplomatic pressure aimed at ousting Maduro, a longtime ally of Putin.

The administration of former US President Donald Trump and dozens of other countries viewed Maduro’s 2018 re-election as a sham and instead recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s rightful president.

But Maduro retained power with the backing of the OPEC member country’s military as well as Russia, China, Cuba and Iran.

President Joe Biden’s administration has insisted it will not lift sanctions, including on Venezuela’s vital oil sector, unless Maduro takes concrete steps to hold free elections.

As Venezuela’s oil exports have been hit hard, Russian oil companies and banks have played a key role in helping Maduro and state oil company PDVSA evade US sanctions and continue shipping.

The United States and its allies are under increasing pressure to further punish Russia for its military attack on Ukraine by sanctioning Russian oil and gas exports, and the White House has said all options remain on the table.

Some commentators have suggested easing sanctions on Venezuela could provide an alternative source of global energy supplies, with critics saying Maduro should not be allowed to benefit without changing his behavior.

On February 25, Venezuela blamed the United States and NATO for the crisis in Ukraine, although it expressed “concern over the worsening crisis” there. Cuba and Nicaragua also defended Putin’s position on Ukraine.

In a phone call on March 1, Putin and Maduro discussed the situation in Ukraine and discussed strengthening a strategic partnership between Russia and Venezuela, Interfax news agency reported, citing the Kremlin.

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Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by William Mallard and Kim Coghill

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