Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman held talks today with opposition groups including the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood to try to find a way out of the country's worst crisis in decades.

Footage broadcast by state television showed Mr Suleiman chairing the meeting at government offices in central Cairo.

Behind him hung a portrait of President Hosni Mubarak, whose three-decade rule the opposition wants to end.

The talks marked Mr Suleiman's first publicly announced meeting with Brotherhood members since Mubarak appointed him vice president last month.

Participants also included members of secular opposition parties, a representative of opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei and independents such as business tycoon Naguib Sawiris.

Mr Mubarak, 82, is refusing to step down, leaving his administration in a standoff with thousands of protestors who have set up camp in central Cairo.

Mr Suleiman - Egypt's long-time intelligence chief - appears publicly at least to be ever more at the heart of mapping the nation's future.

He also met youth representatives of the protestors. He praised their peaceful demonstration and urged them to go home to help the country return to work, according to Reuters television footage of their meeting.

Mr Mubarak has said he will step down in September when his current presidential term ends. He has promised constitutional reform in the meantime.

Many of the opposition parties, including the Brotherhood, had said they would not meet any government representatives before he left power.

The Brotherhood said today it had the right to abandon talks if they were not going anywhere.

Rashad Bayoumi, a senior Brotherhood member, spoke of ‘a positive atmosphere’, during an interview with Al Arabiya television.

Mr Suleiman urged the Brotherhood last week to join the dialogue, calling it a valuable opportunity for the group which has survived decades of state efforts to crush it.

Yesterday, Mr Suleiman met prominent independent and mainstream opposition figures to go through possible options for a transition of power.

The group, calling themselves ‘The Council of Wise Men’, have proposed a compromise whereby Mr Mubarak signs over his powers to Mr Suleiman but remains in office in a ceremonial capacity.

The opposition want constitutional changes that guarantee free and fair elections.