Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido said Wednesday his rival Nicolas Maduro had been made to look ridiculous by insisting he had authorized back channel talks with Washington, only for a top US official to reveal it was Caracas who had made the initial approach behind the president's back.
The sole aim of the secret talks was to discuss Maduro's exit from power and organizing free elections, US National Security Advisor John Bolton said Wednesday.
Bolton's comment came after Maduro said he had authorized the contacts with high level US officials, casting them as a long-standing initiative that he was aware of and had approved.
Countering in a tweet, Bolton said: "The only items discussed by those who are reaching out behind Maduro's back are his departure and free and fair elections."
Addressing reporters in Caracas, Guaido said Maduro "tried to show he was the one involved in this process, and hours later they deny that and make him look ridiculous."
Washington has thrown its backing behind National Assembly leader Guaido as the legitimate president.
Guaido, who otherwise gave no hint that either he or any of his supporters had been involved in the secret talks, emphasized that "Venezuela's legitimate interlocutors are the parliament and its president in charge."
- 'Maduro must go' -
Now supported by more than 50 countries, Guaido proclaimed himself acting president in January after the opposition-controlled National Assembly declared that Maduro had usurped power through fraudulent elections last year.
Bolton noted that President Donald Trump "has repeatedly stated, to end the pilfering of the Venezuelan people's resources and continued repression, Maduro must go."
Trump told reporters at the White House Tuesday that the US was in discussion with Venezuelan officials "at a very high level."
"We are in touch. We're talking to various representatives of Venezuela," Trump said.
Maduro has so far survived mass street protests, a failed military uprising and international challenges to his legitimacy as the once-rich, oil-producing country has spun deeper into crisis.
In a message broadcast on radio and television Tuesday, Maduro said he had authorized the back channel talks with US officials.
"For months there has been contact between senior officials of the United States, of Donald Trump, and the Bolivarian government that I preside over," Maduro said.
"Just as I have sought dialogue in Venezuela, I have sought a way in which President Donald Trump really listens to Venezuela," he said.
- Inner-circle 'reaching out' -
Washington has been pressuring Maduro through sanctions to step down while publicly prodding members of his inner circle to cut their ties to him before it's too late.
The State Department went further on Wednesday, saying members of Maduro's inner circle "have continued to reach out through various methods to US government officials."
"In recent months, dozens of Maduro’s supposed closest allies have attempted to engage with the United States to negotiate his departure," according to a State Department spokesperson.
The US would waive sanctions for Venezuelan officials and military officers "who take concrete, measurable steps to support democracy and freedom in Venezuela."
"Maduro is acutely aware that he cannot trust his inner circle of advisors."
Among the Venezuelan officials reported to have held talks with US representatives is Diosdado Cabello, considered the second most powerful person after Maduro in the leftist regime.
Cabello heads the Constituent Assembly, a body set up by the regime and given extraordinary powers superseding the National Assembly.
"Maduro, the usurper, is already desperate and so clumsy that he had to step up" after the reported contacts with Cabello, Guaido told a press conference in Caracas.
Bolton has said Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and other key leaders pledged support for Maduro's ouster in April. But they swung behind the embattled Venezuelan president after a Guaido-led military uprising fizzled on April 30.
One key conspirator, the head of the feared Sebin intelligence services, General Manuel Cristopher Figuera, turned up in the US after fleeing the country when the uprising failed.
Norway had mediated talks between the government and the opposition on the way forward, but Maduro pulled out of those August 7 after the latest round of US sanctions.