The United States and Venezuela have reached a deal to swap 10 American prisoners for a jailed ally of President Nicolas Maduro, the latest sign of improving relations between Washington and Caracas.
The White House said on Wednesday that the deal secured the release of 10 US citizens from Venezuela, including six people who it said had been wrongfully detained.
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As part of the agreement, US President Joe Biden granted clemency to Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman and Maduro ally who was being held in a Miami jail awaiting trial on a charge of money laundering.
Saab was released from custody and returned to Venezuela on Wednesday, the Venezuelan government said.
US prosecutors have accused Saab of siphoning off $350m from Venezuela via the US in a scheme that involved bribing Venezuelan government officials. He has denied the charge.
“The government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela celebrates with joy the liberation and return to his homeland of our diplomat Alex Saab, who until today was unjustly kidnapped in a U.S. jail,” the Venezuelan government said in a statement.
Reporting from Bogota, Colombia, Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti said Saab was seen as being “very close” to the Venezuelan leader.
“Alex Saab is a Colombian entrepreneur, a very close ally for Nicolas Maduro, a person who is seen here as a bag man for the Venezuelan regime,” Rampietti said.
The White House said Venezuela had also agreed to release at least 20 Venezuelan prisoners, including “political detainees”.
The prisoner swap talks were facilitated by Qatar, the White House said. Qatar’s chief negotiator met Maduro last week.
Six Venezuelan activists have already been freed, according to their lawyer and the wife of one of them. The longtime education campaigners were convicted on conspiracy charges this year and sentenced to 16 years but have proclaimed their innocence.
As part of the deal, all six Americans who were classified by the US as wrongfully detained in Venezuela were released, US officials told the Reuters news agency.
Venezuela also returned to the US fugitive Malaysian businessman Leonard Glenn Francis, known as “Fat Leonard”, who is implicated in a US navy bribery case, the officials said.
The White House has said in recent weeks that it expected to see progress on prisoner releases if it were to continue with sanctions relief for Caracas. The sanctions relief was unveiled in October in response to an agreement by the Venezuelan government to hold fair elections in 2024.
While relations between the US and Venezuela remain uneasy, the two nations have taken steps to ease tensions in recent months.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies