File photo. Photograph:( Reuters )
The detention of the former executives, which includes five naturalised US citizens and one permanent resident, has been a major sticking point in tense relations between Caracas and Washington, which has repeatedly called for the men's release and called their detention unlawful
Venezuela has released from jail six former executives of US-based refining company Citgo and put them on house arrest, a source familiar with the situation said on Friday, more than three years after they were arrested on corruption charges.
The officials were detained in November 2017 after being called into a meeting at the Caracas office of state oil company PDVSA, which owns Citgo.
The detention of the former executives, which includes five naturalised US citizens and one permanent resident, has been a major sticking point in tense relations between Caracas and Washington, which has repeatedly called for the men's release and called their detention unlawful.
The United States labels Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro a dictator, and the former Trump administration imposed crippling sanctions on the OPEC nation's oil sector to try to force his ouster. The release of the six men comes as Maduro seeks to improve ties with US President Joe Biden's new administration.
A Venezuelan court in November sentenced the six former executives, who were accused of crimes including embezzlement, money laundering and conspiracy, to prison terms ranging from eight to 13 years.
The executives - Jose Pereira, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Jose Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell and Gustavo Cardenas - all denied the charges.
Neither Venezuela's Information Ministry nor its chief prosecutor's office immediately replied to a request for comment.
"I'm happy my brothers will sleep in a better place tonight, but the job is not finished until they are back home in the USA," Alirio Rafael Zambrano, the brother of Jose Luis Zambrano and Alirio Jose Zambrano, wrote on Twitter.
The men had been granted house arrest in December 2019, but were moved back to prison at the Helicoide - as the headquarters of the Venezuelan intelligence agency Sebin is known - just months later, in February 2020, hours after President Donald Trump met with Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido.
The United States recognises Guaido as Venezuela's rightful leader, accusing Maduro of rigging his 2018 re-election and using the justice system to stifle dissent. Maduro says Washington wants to control Venezuela's oil reserves and aims to oust him in a coup.
"This is a positive and important step that should help secure their wellbeing during the COVID-19 outbreak in Venezuela," said veteran US diplomat Bill Richardson, who has traveled to Caracas to help negotiate the men's release.
(With inputs from agencies)