Prisoner swap: Venezuela releases 7 jailed Americans; U.S. frees 2

WASHINGTON — Venezuela freed seven Americans on Saturday, including five oil executives imprisoned for nearly five years, in a swap for two nephews of President Nicolas Maduro’s wife who had been jailed on drug smuggling convictions, authorities said.

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It is the largest trade of jailed citizens since Joe Biden became president, according to The Associated Press.

“We are relieved and gratified to be welcoming back to their families today seven Americans who had been wrongfully detained for too long in Venezuela,” Joshua Geltzer, the U.S. deputy homeland security adviser, told the news organization.

U.S. prisoners freed include five remaining employees of the “Citgo 6″ -- Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira -- who went to Venezuela before Thanksgiving five years ago to attend a meeting in Caracas, where the oil company’s parent, state-run PDSVA, is located.

“Today, after years of being wrongfully detained in Venezuela, we are bringing home Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Jose Pereira, Matthew Heath, and Osman Khan,” Biden said in a statement. “These individuals will soon be reunited with their families and back in the arms of their loved ones where they belong.”

While attending the meeting, the men were whisked away by masked security agents who broke into a conference room, the AP reported.

Also released was Matthew Heath, a former U.S. Marine corporal from Tennessee who was arrested on Sept. 9, 2020, on “specious” weapons charges, the U.S. State Department said in a news release; and 24-year-old Florida resident Osman Khan, who was jailed on Jan. 17, 2020. Khan had been working remotely in Bucaramanga, Colombia, after graduating from the University of Central Florida. He was arrested after crossing the border into Venezuela to meet his new girlfriend’s parents, according to McClatchy News.

In exchange for the Americans, U.S. officials released Franqui Flores and his cousin, Efrain Camp, the AP reported. They are nephews of Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores. Both men were arrested in Haiti during a 2015 Drug Enforcement Agency sting and were convicted the following year.

The deal follows months of back-channel negotiations, the news organization reported.

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated State Department personnel.

“Although we celebrate the release of these U.S. nationals from Venezuela, we still have more work to do,” Blinken said. “The safety and security of Americans worldwide is my highest priority as Secretary of State, and we will continue to press for the release of all U.S. nationals wrongfully detained abroad.”

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