Venezuela frees 7 US citizens in swap for Maduro relatives
Caracas, Oct 02: Venezuela on Saturday freed seven imprisoned US citizens in exchange for two relatives of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro who were jailed in the US for drug trafficking.
The prisoner transfer, which one US official said took place at an airport in an unspecified third country, is the largest since US President Joe Biden took office in January 2020.
It included five executives of Citgo, the US subsidiary of Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA. Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira were held in Venezuela for nearly five years.
US Marine veteran Matthew Heath and Florida resident Osman Khan were also among those freed.
Who are the released Venezuelans?
The negotiated release of "two young Venezuelans" held in the US was confirmed in a statement by Caracas.
While Venezuelan authorities did not reveal names, they were identified by a senior US official as Francisco Flores de Freitas and his cousin Efrain Antonio Campos Flores — nephews of President Nicolas Maduro's wife, Cilia Flores.
To facilitate a deal, US President Joe Biden granted clemency for the duo.
They were arrested in a US Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation in Haiti in 2015.
The two were convicted in 2016 following US charges that they conducted a multi-million-dollar cocaine deal.
In 2017, the cousins were sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Relations between Washington and Caracas have been strained for years.
The prisoner handover comes after months of back-channel talks with Maduro's socialist government, which is under strict US sanctions.
Referring to the two Venezuelans as "unjustly imprisoned," the Maduro government said in a statement that it "welcomes the outcome of these talks and hopes for the preservation of peace and harmony with all the nations of our region and the world."
Earlier on Saturday, Biden issued the announcement that the US citizens were on their way home.
Shortly afterward, a senior official from his administration confirmed that the President had made the "painful decision" to greenlight the prisoner swap in order to secure their freedom.
The five Citgo executives were detained in 2017 while on a business visit to the South American nation and accused of corruption.
They were each sentenced to more than 13 years of jail time.