Obama meets Venezuela's Maduro at time of high tensions

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama met Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro privately at a regional summit on Saturday and tried to ease tensions that surged after the United States recently placed sanctions on Venezuela.

Maduro had earlier challenged Obama to discuss his decision to sanction seven Venezuelan officials, saying in a speech to the summit in Panama that he had been trying to arrange a meeting with Obama for two years but never received a response.

Obama was not present at the time but the two later met. A Venezuelan government spokeswoman said they greeted each other in Spanish and had a respectful conversation.

A U.S. official said it was a brief conversation just as Obama was leaving for his return to the United States.

"President Obama indicated our strong support for a peaceful dialogue between the parties within Venezuela. He reiterated that our interest is not in threatening Venezuela, but in supporting democracy, stability and prosperity in Venezuela and the region," said Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman.

The U.S. government last month ordered sanctions against the seven officials, including the head of state intelligence service and the director of the national police force, saying they had committed acts of violence or abused human rights.

The sanctions included blocking or freezing their property and interests in the United States and denying them entry into the country.

The U.S. government also said Venezuela was a national security threat, a claim that drew criticism from several Latin American governments.

U.S. officials later tried to downplay the security threat designation, but the issue nonetheless hung over the weekend summit that was dominated by Obama's historic meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro, Maduro's closest ally.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Matt Spetalnick)