Antagonists US, Venezuela hold rare diplomatic meet

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CARACAS, Oct 2 (Reuters) Senior officials from antagonists Venezuela and the United States held a rare meeting on Monday and laid the groundwork for a possible visit by Washington's top diplomat for Latin America, Venezuela said.

The OPEC nation is a major oil exporter to the United States but the two trading partners typically have little diplomatic contact and there had been no such high-level meetings for years.

Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro had ''very cordial,'' hour-long talks with Thomas Shannon, the US diplomat in charge of relations with Latin America, at the UN General Assembly in New York, the foreign ministry said yesterday.

It was the first time the two men met and Shannon expressed interest in visiting Venezuela, the ministry said.

President Hugo Chavez, who labels his counterpart George W Bush the devil, bases much of his foreign policy on combating what he sees as U.S. imperialism. The countries bicker over everything from drug trafficking to arms deals to democracy.

Last year, the nations' diplomats sought to organize a trip by Shannon but Chavez nixed the tentative plan, according to officials from both sides.

But last month, the president, who calls Cuban leader Fidel Castro his mentor, publicly urged Bush to help him as he seeks to mediate the release of hostages, including three Americans, held by rebels in Colombia.

That mediation was a main topic of discussion, Venezuela said.

Political analysts and diplomats say there is potential for a thaw in the strained relations when Bush leaves office in 2009, especially if a Democrat wins the presidency.

The countries often say they are willing to cooperate on areas of mutual interest but they also acknowledge they have deep, ideological differences.

REUTERS ARB AS1923

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