WASHINGTON, Oct 1 (Reuters) – Venezuela on Saturday freed seven jailed Americans, including five oil executives, in exchange for Washington’s release of two relatives of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, U.S. officials said.
The swap included executives of Citgo Petroleum held for years, in addition to U.S. Marine veteran Matthew Heath and another American citizen named Osman Khan, the officials said. They were exchanged for two of Maduro’s wife’s nephews, who had been convicted on drug charges, the officials said.
President Joe Biden said in a statement that the “wrongfully detained” Americans “will soon be reunited with their families and back in the arms of their loved ones where they belong.”
“Today, we celebrate that seven families will be whole once more. To all the families who are still suffering and separated from their loved ones who are wrongfully detained – know that we remain dedicated to securing their release,” Biden said.
The release followed months of secretive talks between the United States and Maduro’s Socialist government, which is under strict U.S. sanctions, including on the OPEC nation’s energy sector.
It comes at a time when Washington has come under heavy pressure to do more to secure freedom for dozens of Americans held abroad, including in Russia.
Maduro’s government said that as a result of talks that started in March two young Venezuelans “unjustly” held in the United States were freed as well as a group of U.S. citizens who were subject to Venezuelan court proceedings. The statement in state media said the Americans were released for “humanitarian reasons.”
The freed Americans were all in stable health and on their way home, while the two Venezuelans were also headed back to their country, senior Biden administration officials later told reporters in a telephone briefing.
Biden approved the exchange weeks ago, making a “tough decision, a painful decision” that the release of the two Venezuelans was essential to securing the Americans’ freedom.
The prisoner swap, which included Biden granting clemency to the two Venezuelans, has not altered U.S. policy toward Venezuela, another senior administration official said.
Washington has maintained tough Trump-era sanctions on Venezuela, saying it will consider easing the measures if Maduro returns to negotiations with the Venezuelan opposition that he suspended last year.
The five employees of Houston-based Citgo, who had been detained in Venezuela in 2017, were Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira.
Also released was Heath, a former Marine hospitalized following what his family said was a suicide attempt in June. He had been held since 2020 on terrorism charges, which he denied.
Khan was identified as a Florida man who had been arrested in January.
In return, the United States freed two of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores’ nephews, Franqui Flores and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores. The two were convicted in 2016 on U.S. charges that they tried to carry out a multimillion-dollar cocaine deal to obtain a large amount of cash to help their family stay in power.
At least four other Americans are still detained in Venezuela, including two former U.S. Army Special Forces members, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were arrested in 2020 in connection with a botched raid aimed at ousting Maduro.
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Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Matt Spetalnick; aditional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Luc Cohen and Kanishka Singh; editing by Diane Craft and Jonathan Oatis
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