Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's president, has hosted opposition leaders at the start of mediated talks intended to end two months of political unrest that has killed dozens of people across the country.
Thursday’s meeting, brokered by foreign ministers from the Unasur bloc of South American governments, took place at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas and was broadcast live on TV.
"The road here was long and complicated, but it was worth it ... we are going to listen patiently, and with respect and tolerance, to the compatriots of the opposition," Maduro said in lengthy opening comments.
He cautioned against unrealistic expectations.
"There are no negotiations here. No pacts. All we're looking for is a model of peaceful coexistence, of mutual tolerance."
Some opposition groups, including the party of jailed protest leader Leopoldo Lopez, boycotted the talks while dozens of demonstrators remain in jail.
Protests broke out in the capital as the talks were taking place.
Al Jazeera's Mariana Sanchez, reporting from Caracas, said demonstrators were saying that the only way to overcome the crisis is removing Maduro from office.
"Protesters are in no mood to negotiate," she said.
Julian Infante, a protester, told Al Jazeera: "We will not have a dialogue over the tombs of our dead brothers."
Since the protests began in early February, 41 people have been killed and about 650 people have been injured, according to official figures.
Authorities said on Thursday that a policeman was shot dead in western Barquisimeto city while dispersing a demonstration.
Pollsters say approval levels for both Maduro and the opposition have fallen during the crisis, while an already slowing economy has suffered a further drag on businesses and transport from the impact of violent clashes.
Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, a top opposition leader, said the face-to-face discussions were long overdue.
"Something has gone very wrong for a meeting between the government and the opposition to be rare," he said, as quoted by Reuters news agency, adding that they must find a way to stop the bloodshed.
"Violence must be eradicated at the roots," Aveledo said.
Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who narrowly lost to Maduro in last year's election to replace late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, attended the meeting and was due to speak later.
'Good faith' witness
Eleven opposition delegates and 11 "Chavistas" were given 10 minutes each to speak after Maduro's opening remarks.
Both sides have called on the Roman Catholic Church to be a "good faith" witness.
At the start of Thursday's discussions, the Vatican's envoy to Venezuela read a letter from the Pope, encouraging the efforts to find peace.
Maduro, who calls himself the "son" of Chavez and is seeking to preserve popular oil-funded welfare policies while tinkering with his predecessor's socialist economic model, had said before the talks he would be a "traitor" if he began negotiating away the gains of the revolution.
He says that if the opposition wants to get rid of him, it would have to be via the ballot only. His foes could force a presidential "recall referendum" in 2016 if they garner about four million signatures for it. Maduro's six-year term ends in 2019.
Maduro said he had "positive surprises" for the opposition at the discussions, but gave no details.
There have been calls for a goodwill release of former security official Ivan Simonovis, who is serving a 30-year sentence for some shootings during a brief coup against Chavez against 2002.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies