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Biden announces return of seven Americans detained from Venezuela | CNN Politics





CNN

President Joe Biden on Saturday announced the return of seven Americans who he said had been unjustly detained in Venezuela for “years.”

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

The seven US detainees were released in exchange for the release of two Venezuelan prisoners in the US, both nephews of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores.

Vadell, Toledo, José Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano and Pereira are five of the six US oil executives known as the “CITGO 6” arrested in Venezuela more than four years ago. Two Americans who had been detained there, including one of the CITGO 6, were released in March following a visit by two top US government officials to Caracas. Heath, a Navy veteran, was arrested in September 2020. Khan has been detained since January 2022. The US government has classified the seven people as wrongfully detained.

Vadell, Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Pereira, Heath and Khan, a senior administration official told reporters Saturday, are in “stable health” and have been offered medical care and a “range of options.” support”. They are currently airborne on the way back to the US, the official said. A second senior official told reporters that US officials met with each of the seven people after their release and they are expected to receive further evaluation on Saturday.

Biden spoke with each of the families to “share the good news of their release,” the first senior official said.

The official called the prisoner swap with Venezuela a “tough” and “painful” decision for Biden and the US government.

“Over the course of those negotiations, it became clear that one particular step was required to obtain the only acceptable result: that of free Americans. The president made a difficult decision, a painful decision, and he offered something that Venezuelans have actively sought. Specifically, it became clear in the course of the negotiation that the release of two Venezuelans, Efraín Antonio Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas, sometimes called the ‘narco-nephews’ due to their relationship with the wife of Nicolás Maduro, was essential to secure the release of these Americans,” the official said.

In 2016, Flores and Campo were convicted in US federal court of conspiring to smuggle more than 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. They were sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2017.

Biden, the first official said, “made the difficult decision to grant clemency” to both Flores and Campo.

The president approved the swap “several weeks ago” and it was followed by negotiations and logistical efforts that “took some time to work out,” the official said.

The freed Venezuelans and Americans were flown to “a country between Venezuela and the United States” for the exchange. Once both planes landed, there was both virtual and visual confirmation “that the right passengers were ready to travel” and “passengers departed on different planes than they arrived,” the first official said.

Roger Carstens, the presidential special envoy for hostage affairs, is with the freed Americans, the official added. Carstens’s initial impressions, the official said, were that the freed Americans were “delighted” to return to their families and declined to elaborate on their conditions.

Its launch comes months after a US government delegation quietly traveled to Venezuela in June “to discuss the welfare and safety of US citizens in Venezuela,” a State Department spokesperson told CNN. at that moment.

The Zambrano family is “thrilled” to have been released and can now “get much-needed medical care” in the US, the family said in a statement.

“We could not have come this far without the defenders and other hostage families who have so generously been a light in the dark to get us through this blessed day,” the family said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the latest development and commended State Department staff for “their tireless efforts to achieve this result.”

“While we celebrate the release of these US citizens from Venezuela, we still have more work to do. The safety of Americans around the world is my top priority as Secretary of State, and we will continue to push for the release of all American citizens wrongfully detained abroad,” he said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the Bring Our Families Home Campaign welcomed the news of the detainees’ release “after a long and difficult captivity.”

“We applaud President Biden for having the courage to make this deal and encourage him and the Administration to continue building on the momentum that began with (Trevor Reed’s) release,” spokesman Jonathan Franks said, referring to the former infantryman. Marine who was detained in Russia. in 2019 and was released in a prisoner exchange earlier this year.

This story has been updated with additional developments.



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