Venezuela's government began talks Friday with opposition leaders to stem a growing political crisis, but the two sides were sharply divided and a quick agreement appeared unlikely.

President Hugo Chavez has already rejected the opposition's central demand that he submit to a popular referendum on his rule.

The president of the country's main labor federation, Carlos Ortega, said the talks "would be stillborn" if the government blocks the early referendum. Ortega, who is not among the six opposition negotiators, threatened to call a nationwide strike if that happened.

On Monday, the opposition battled through Chavez supporters in downtown Caracas to deliver more than 2 million signatures to the National Elections Council demanding the nonbinding referendum. Dozens were hurt by gunfire, rocks and tear gas during the melee.

The negotiations are considered crucial to averting chaos in Venezuela, the fifth largest oil producer in the world and a major supplier to the United States.

The constitution says a referendum on Chavez's presidency can only be held halfway into his six-year term, or next August. Opponents want to push ahead with the proposal anyway because they believe Chavez will be so embarrassed by the results that he'll step down.

Rising unemployment, a collapse in the national currency, the unsolved slayings of dozens during a brief April coup and a paralyzed judicial system fuel opposition claims that Chavez no longer can govern.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, who is leading the government negotiating team, told The Associated Press that the opposition was misleading Venezuelans with the referendum demand.

"I believe they've deceived a good number of Venezuelans, making them believe that with these signatures, with a referendum, that they will force the president's exit," Rangel said Thursday. "That does not correspond with the constitutional reality of this country."

Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton, among the six government delegates, said the Chavez administration had an "open agenda" at the talks.

Venezuela has been crippled by massive protests and strikes staged by Chavez's opponents. The failed coup last April saw Chavez booted from power and then restored after two days.

"Venezuela is at a crossroads, where goodwill toward adversaries is necessary to avoid more confrontation," said Cesar Gaviria, head of the Organization of American States, which brokered the talks.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who has also tried to mediate an end to the conflict, said Friday that international efforts to resolve the dispute can only go so far.

"Ultimately, it will be Venezuelans themselves who must choose between the paths of confrontation and division, or reconciliation and a promising future," Carter said in a statement issued in Atlanta.

Hours before the talks began in a white-stucco seminary in Hatillo, a village in the lush green hills outside Caracas, Chavez said he welcomed the meetings.

"Perfect," Chavez exclaimed after hearing the talks were about to start. "That's the way. Not by coups or fascism or playing games that betray democracy and the people."

Chavez himself led a failed coup when he was a paratroop commander in 1992.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

APTV 11-08-02 1522EST