CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Colombian guerilla leaders met here Thursday with a delegation of businessmen, priests and intellectuals in an effort to help end their country's 35-year civil war.

The meeting came after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez offered to help peace efforts in Colombia, an invitation which prompted some critics to say he is interfering in Colombian politics. Organizing such an event in Colombia would be much more difficult because of security and controversy.

Only Colombians were at the meeting, including Attorney General Jaime Bernal, former presidential candidate Horacio Serpa, Congressman Antonio Navarro Wolf and leading businessman Sabas Pretelt de la Vega.

The meeting came hours after the assassination Wednesday in Bogota of a Colombian peace activist, 58-year-old university professor Jesus Bejarano.

Thursday's talks in Venezuela were a renewal of discussions earlier this year between members of the National Liberation Army _ Colombia's second largest rebel group _ and Colombian government officials and civil society leaders.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel said the meeting was carried out with the permission of the Colombian government. No details of what happened at the meeting were immediately released.

At least 35,000 people have been killed in the Colombian conflict, and rebels often cross the border to kidnap Venezuelan ranchers and attack Venezuelan troops.

Chavez on Thursday defended his government's efforts.

``Let them say whatever they want about what we're doing, because we want peace,'' Chavez told reporters. ``The time has come to push for the paths of peace.''