Venezuela releases seven imprisoned Americans in exchange for the US reportedly releasing two nephews of President Nicolas Maduro's wife.
President Joe Biden has greenlighted a prisoner swap with Caracas that freed seven Americans for two Venezuelans who are reportedly nephews of that country's first lady.
The two governments, which have endured strained relations for years, announced the exchange in nearly simultaneous twin statements on Saturday.
"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 White House statement.
The president vowed his "unflinching commitment to keep faith with Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained all around the world."
It became clear in negotiations that the release of the two Venezuelans, "sometimes referred to as the 'narco nephews' due to their relationship with Nicolas Maduro's wife, was essential to securing the release of these Americans," a senior US administration official told reporters.
"The president made a tough decision, a painful decision, to offer something the Venezuelans have actively sought" in the months-long swap negotiations, the official added.
The government in Caracas, in announcing the release of its citizens, noted the extended diplomatic negotiations between the two rival nations.
"As a result of various conversations held since March 5 with representatives of the government of the United States, the release of two young Venezuelans unjustly imprisoned in that country has been achieved", the Venezuelan government said in a communiqué without revealing the names of those released.
It also confirmed the release "for humanitarian reasons" of an unspecified number of Americans detained in Venezuela.
Five of the seven freed Americans were executives of the Citgo oil corporation, detained in 2017 while on a business trip to the South American country and accused of corruption.
Citgo is the US subsidiary of Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA.
The Citgo employees -- former company president Pereira, along with Vadell, Toledo, and the Zambranos -- each had been sentenced to more than 13 years in prison.
The other two Americans freed -- US Marine Heath, and Khan -- were arrested separately.
Relatives of Maduro's wife freed?
Neither side identified the two Venezuelans involved, but the Washington Post reported they were Franqui Flores and his cousin Efrain Campo, both nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's wife.
They had been arrested in Haiti, then taken to New York where they were convicted of drug charges.
The United States had long contended that its seven nationals were held on spurious charges. State Department spokesperson Ned Price referred to them a year ago as "political pawns."
The two countries have had strained relations for years. The United States is one of some 60 countries that refused to recognise Maduro as the legally elected president.
But Russia's offensive in Ukraine -- and the pressure it placed on global energy supplies -- brought behind-the-scenes efforts to engineer at least a minimal warming with Venezuela, a major oil producer.