Venezuela releases 2 detainees after talks with US officials

Release comes after high-level meeting in Caracas discussing easing oil sanctions on Venezuela

Venezuela released the American detainees after US officials held talks with President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas. EPA
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Two Americans, including a former executive of the oil company Citgo, were back in the US after being released from prison in Venezuela, days after a high-level US delegation met President Nicolas Maduro.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed Gustavo Cardenas and Jorge Alberto Fernandez have returned to the US.

“We express our deepest appreciation to our many partners around the world who joined us in calling for their release,” Mr Blinken said in a statement.

“While we welcome this important positive step, we continue to press for the release of all wrongfully detained US nationals in Venezuela and around the world.”

Mr Cardenas is one of the so-called Citgo 6 — five Venezuela-born American citizens and one with US permanent residency — who worked for Citgo, the US subsidiary of Venezuela state oil company PDVSA, and were detained in Venezuela in 2017 on corruption charges.

The US has repeatedly called for their release.

The NGO Coalition for Human Rights and Democracy tweeted that Mr Fernandez “was unjustly detained … and accused of being a terrorist, simply for carrying a drone".

US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday both men had been “wrongfully detained in Venezuela".

“Unjustly holding Americans captive is always unacceptable,” he said in a statement.

The release of the two detainees came after a rare meeting between Venezuelan and the US officials. The US suspended diplomatic relations with the South American country in 2019 and accused Mr Maduro of election fraud.

Former US president Donald Trump froze oil exports from Venezuela in 2019, citing Mr Maduro's human rights abuses.

US officials visited Caracas at the weekend to discuss the possibility of easing sanctions on oil imports from the country.

Mr Maduro called the meeting “respectful, cordial and diplomatic” and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said “energy security” was among the topics discussed as Washington looks for ways to replace Russian oil imports, which have now been banned over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

The US talks with Venezuela were met with criticism by Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said Mr Biden's efforts to isolate Russia “should not be undercut by propping up a dictator under investigation for crimes against humanity".

“The democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people, much like the resolve and courage of the people of Ukraine, are worth much more than a few thousand barrels of oil,” Mr Menendez said in a statement.

Mr Biden announced on Tuesday a ban on Russian oil, liquefied natural gas and coal to further punish Russia for its assault on Ukraine.

In announcing the new sanctions, Mr Biden warned of soaring petrol prices. Americans are already facing heavy inflation, which is at a 40-year high.

US petrol prices climbed to over $4.25 a gallon on Wednesday, the American Automobile Association reported, a record.

Agence France-Presse contributed to this report

Updated: March 09, 2022, 3:19 PM