Caracas: Venezuelan officials and opposition foes have held separate secret meetings in the Dominican Republic with a group of ex-world leaders seeking a way out of political crisis, officials said on Saturday, as an ex-military reserve leader was shot dead.

Representatives of both sides of Venezuela’s political standoff met former Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, former Dominican president Leonel Fernandez and Panama’s ex-president Martin Torrijos “in recent days” under the auspices of the Union of South American Nations, Unasur, to seek a “framework for a national dialogue,” the organisation said in a statement.

The mediating former leaders found “a desire for dialogue on both sides,” for which new meetings were proposed to “agree on an agenda that meets the requirements of each party and a method for engaging in national dialogue,” the statement said.

The meetings were the initiative of President Nicolas Maduro, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez tweeted, saying the effort “promotes peace, respect for the rule of law and the defence of sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The main centre-right opposition group, Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), said in a statement that its conditions for the talks were the holding of a referendum over Maduro’s recall, freeing political prisoners, allowing exiles to return and “an end to prosecutions for political persecution.”

The opposition is also calling on the government to allow international relief supplies of food and medicine into the country and seeks to end a crippling economic crisis “generated by official corruption and an economic model that is spreading misery”.

The three former leaders also held talks with Maduro and the opposition under Unasur auspices in Caracas two weeks ago.

Publicly, the two sides could not be further apart.

MUD, which blames Maduro for the economic crisis, accuses the electoral authorities of dragging their feet in processing their petition for a referendum on removing the socialist leader from office.

Although a survey last month showed 68 per cent of Venezuelans want Maduro to leave office and to hold new elections, he has said the referendum drive has “very little support.”

Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, but its economy is reeling from the collapse in global crude prices.

Venezuelans are experiencing severe food and medicine shortages compounded by the world’s highest inflation – almost 190 per cent in 2015, which the International Monetary Fund predicts will balloon to 700 per cent in 2016.

Meanwhile, General Felix Velasquez, the former commander of the military reserve, was shot dead on Saturday in Caracas while with his five-year-old granddaughter.

Gunmen on motorbikes targeted Velasquez in what prosecutors have called a robbery gone awry. Velasquez was the first man to lead the militia force created by Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

But some in the Maduro government maintained that robbery was not the motive for the killing.

Justice Minister Gustavo Gonzalez Lopez called the shooting a “paid assassination.”

The killing, he insisted, “is part of the far right’s possible goal of trying to undo the process which has just started,” referring to the political dialogue.

Maduro blames the crisis on an “economic war” against him by Venezuelan elites with Washington’s backing.

The opposition is trying to resort to the power of the street after the Supreme Court blocked its efforts to pressure Maduro through the legislature, where it won control in a landslide election victory in December.

The president is said to control the high court and other key state institutions, and so far maintains the public support of the army’s top brass.