By Humeyra Pamuk and Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Venezuela on Saturday freed seven Americans, including five oil executives, in exchange for two relatives of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro jailed in the United States on drug convictions, U.S. officials said.
The swap included executives of Citgo Petroleum held for years, in addition to U.S. Marine veteran Matthew Heath and another U.S. citizen named Osman Khan. They were exchanged for two of Maduro’s wife’s nephews, who were arrested in 2015.
President Joe Biden said in a statement that the “wrongfully detained” Americans would soon be reunited with their relatives.
“Today, we celebrate that seven families will be whole once more. To all the families who are still suffering and separated from their loved ones who are wrongfully detained – know that we remain dedicated to securing their release,” Biden said.
The prisoner transfer, which one U.S. official said took place at an airport in an unspecified third country, followed months of secretive talks with Maduro’s socialist government, which is under strict U.S. sanctions, including on the OPEC nation’s energy sector.
It came at a time when Washington is under growing pressure to do more to secure freedom for dozens of Americans held abroad. Much of the Biden administration’s focus has been on Russia’s detention of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American, Paul Whelan.
Maduro’s government said in a statement that as a result of talks that started in March two young Venezuelans “unjustly” held in the United States were freed, as well as a group of U.S. citizens who were subject to Venezuelan court proceedings and were released for “humanitarian reasons.”
The freed Americans were all in stable health and “overjoyed to be heading home,” while the two Venezuelans were en route back to the South American country, a senior Biden administration official told reporters in a telephone briefing.
Biden approved the exchange weeks ago, making a “tough decision, a painful decision” that the release of the two Venezuelans was essential to securing the Americans’ freedom. U.S. officials have previously said in private that Maduro wanted to use the detainees as bargaining chips.
The swap, which included Biden granting clemency to the two Venezuelans who U.S. authorities had dubbed the “narco nephews,” has not altered Washington’s policy toward Venezuela, a senior administration official said.
The Biden administration has only slightly eased Trump-era sanctions on Venezuela, saying it will consider more significant steps if Maduro returns to negotiations with the Venezuelan opposition and there is progress toward free elections.
An increased flow of Venezuelan oil to world markets could help replace some of the Russian supplies hit by international sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, experts say.
The five employees of Houston-based Citgo, who had been detained in Venezuela in 2017, were Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira.
Also released was Heath, a former Marine hospitalized following what his family said was a suicide attempt in June. He had been held since 2020 on terrorism charges, which he denied.
Khan was identified as a Florida man who had been arrested in January.
In return, the Unites States freed two of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores’ nephews, Franqui Flores and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores.
The two, arrested in Haiti in 2015 in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation, were convicted in 2016 on U.S. charges that they tried to carry out a multimillion-dollar cocaine deal. They were each sentenced in 2017 to 18 years in prison.
The prisoner handover, the largest since Biden took office in January 2020, occurred in “a country in between Venezuela and the United States” after the men arrived in separate planes, a senior U.S. official said.
Citgo welcomed the news that the executives were free, saying in a statement it was “grateful to the leaders in Washington who helped bring about their release.”
A Venezuelan court in 2020 sentenced the executives, accused of embezzlement, money laundering and conspiracy, to prison terms ranging from eight to 13 years. They and the company maintained their innocence, and the U.S. State Department called the charges “specious.”
“We applaud President Biden for having the courage to make this deal and encourage him and the administration to continue building upon the momentum,” said Jonathan Franks, spokesperson for the Bring our Families Home campaign, which advocates for Americans wrongfully held overseas.
At least four other Americans are still detained in Venezuela, including two former U.S. Army Special Forces members, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were arrested in 2020 in connection with a botched raid aimed at ousting Maduro.
Venezuela released two jailed U.S. citizens in March following a visit to Caracas by the highest-level U.S. delegation in years.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Matt Spetalnick; Aditional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Luc Cohen, Kanishka Singh and Gary McWilliams; Editing by Diane Craft, Jonathan Oatis and Daniel Wallis)