Venezuela releases 7 Americans in exchange for two nephews of Maduro

Venezuela freed seven Americans this Saturday jailed, including five oil executives, to change of the release of two nephews Venezuelan President Nicolas RipeUS officials said.

The swap included former executives from Citgo Petroleum as well as US Navy veteran Matthew Heath and Osman Khan, the officials added. They exchanged them for two nephews of Maduro’s wifewho had been jailed on drug charges, officials said.

US President Joe Biden said in a statement that Americans “will soon be reunited with their families and will be back in the arms of their loved ones, where they belong.”

The prisoner transfer, which a US official said took place on an airport tarmac in an unspecified third country, followed secret talks between the United States and the Maduro government, which is under strict US sanctions, including the OPEC nation’s oil sector.

The release comes at a time when Washington is under heavy pressure to do more to secure the freedom of dozens of Americans held abroad, including in Russia. Much of the focus of the Biden administration has been arresting Russia by Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.

The Venezuelan government reported in a statement that as a result of the talks that began in March, Two young Venezuelans “unjustly imprisoned” in the United States released and a group of US citizens who were subject to legal proceedings.

The statement added that the Americans were released for “humanitarian reasons.”

All of the freed Americans were in stable health and on their way home, while the two Venezuelans were also returning to their country, senior Biden administration officials later told reporters in a telephone briefing.

The prisoner swap, which included Biden granting the two Venezuelans clemency, has not altered the policy of the United States towards Venezuelaadded a senior administration official.

Washington has maintained tough Trump-era sanctions against Venezuela and has signaled it would consider easing the measures if Maduro returns to negotiations with the Venezuelan opposition suspended last year.

The five former executives of Citgo, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan state-owned PDVSA, were arrested in Venezuela in 2017 and are Tomeu Vadell, José Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and José Pereira.

Also released was Heath, a hospitalized former US Marine whose family said he attempted suicide in June. He had been detained since 2020 on terrorism charges, which he denied.

Khan was identified as a Florida man arrested in January.

In exchange, the United States freed two of the nephews of the Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores, Franqui Flores and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores. Both were convicted in 2016 on charges of trying to pull off a multi-million dollar cocaine deal to obtain a large amount of cash to help their family stay in power. In 2017 they received sentences of 18 years in prison.

The prisoner handover, the largest since Biden took office in January 2020, occurred in “a country between Venezuela and the United States” after the men arrived on separate planes, a senior US official said.

At least four other Americans remain detained in Venezuelaincluding two former members of the United States special forces, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were arrested in 2020 in connection with a failed raid aimed at overthrowing Maduro.

Venezuela released two imprisoned US citizens in March, one of them a former Citgo executive, after a visit to Caracas by a high-ranking US delegation. (Reuters)