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Published: Thursday January 9, 2014 MYT 7:06:07 AM
Updated: Thursday January 9, 2014 MYT 7:07:08 AM

Venezuela president and opposition leader in rare handshake

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a meeting with mayors and governors at Miraflores Palace in Caracas January 8, 2014. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a meeting with mayors and governors at Miraflores Palace in Caracas January 8, 2014. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) - After months of insults, Venezuela's president and opposition leader on Wednesday shook hands for the first time since their bitter election standoff last year - at a meeting about chronic violent crime prompted by the roadside murder of a popular beauty queen.

President Nicolas Maduro routinely calls Henrique Capriles a "fascist" and "murderer", while the opposition leader has been lambasting his rival as "incompetent" and "illegitimate" since Maduro won April's disputed election by 1.5 percentage points.

Yet they put personal acrimony aside to greet each other briefly during an emergency meeting called by Maduro with state governors at the Miraflores presidential palace. Capriles is the

governor of Miranda state, one of the most crime-ridden.

Their meeting is unlikely to change the political landscape, with both sides in the polarized South American OPEC nation still far apart and mutually suspicious.

Monday's murder of former Miss Venezuela and soap opera actress Monica Spear has rattled the country of 29 million even though Venezuelans have long suffered one of the world's worst crime rates.

"I'm in Miraflores. I'll go anywhere for the sake of Venezuelans' security. There's a national outcry to stop the violence," Capriles said on Twitter.

Capriles, 41, has still not publicly recognized Maduro's presidency, though his allegations of fraud have run out of steam in the courts.

Maduro, 51, had previously said anyone who did not acknowledge his leadership would not be allowed into Miraflores. But he has been showing a more reconciliatory attitude to the opposition since opinion polls in December shored up his standing.

Some opposition activists have jumped on the shooting of Spear and her former husband - in front of their 5-year-old daughter who survived - as evidence of the socialist government's failure to beat crime.

Maduro, who has started several major anti-crime initiatives since taking office, urged a fresh approach.

"This cannot be just another meeting," said Maduro, whose predecessor Hugo Chavez also began a dozen or so anti-crime initiatives that failed to stop murders and kidnappings rising during his 14-year rule.

"Time and again, people have used this subject for political manipulation," Maduro said. "It's a very small minority that doesn't realize this is a national problem, a serious problem that became endemic 40-50 years ago."

Hundreds of fellow showbiz artists and other mourners took to a Caracas square on Wednesday to grieve for 29-year-old Spear. They said prayers, released balloons and held up photos.

Spear lived in the United States but was vacationing in Venezuela when armed robbers ambushed her car.

Twitter and Instagram posts had shown her joy at being back in her homeland with her daughter, even though she originally moved to the United States citing insecurity.

Venezuela's official 2013 homicide rate was 39 per 100,000 inhabitants, but non-government organizations put the figure at twice that for a total of nearly 25,000 deaths.

"The government is directly responsible for Monica Spear's death," fumed another opposition leader, Maria Corina Machado.

She said Maduro and Chavez before him had abandoned serious crime policies in favour of oppressing political opponents.

"For 15 years, they have been destroying the judicial system and the police bodies," she said.

(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Grant McCool)

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