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Trump says detained American released in Venezuela

© AFP | Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (L) greets US senator Bob Corker (R) during the latter's visit to the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on May 25, 2018

WASHINGTON (AFP) - 

US President Donald Trump announced Saturday that Venezuela has released American Joshua Holt after nearly two years in jail in the leftist-ruled country, and that he was heading home for a White House reception.

Holt's release came after Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met in Caracas Friday with President Nicolas Maduro.

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch praised Corker's "pivotal efforts" in gaining Holt's release, adding that the Utah resident was on his way back to the United States.

"Good news about the release of the American hostage from Venezuela," Trump tweeted. "Should be landing in D.C. this evening and be in the White House, with his family, at about 7:00 P.M. The great people of Utah will be very happy!"

Trump did not initially identify Holt by name but later did in a follow-up tweet.

Holt, a Mormon, was being held at a prison in Caracas known as the Helicoide where the Venezuelan intelligence service Sebin keeps political prisoners.

He was arrested shortly after arriving in Venezuela in June 2016, accused of possessing weapons and plotting to destabilize the Maduro government.

Top officials in the Socialist government labelled him a US spy.

Earlier this month, Holt surfaced during a protest by opposition activists jailed in the Helicoide, and appealed for US help in a video posted on Twitter.

"I'm calling on the people of America. I need your help to get me out of this place," Holt said in the video.

He also appeared in a photo taken of a group of prisoners inside the detention center.

"As announced by the president, our son and his wife will be released today," read a family statement issued by Holt's lawyer in Venezuela, Carlos Trujillo. "We thank you for your collaboration during this time of anguish we have been through."

"We are grateful to everyone who participated in this miracle."

- Sanctions bite -

Holt's release comes as Maduro moves to ease tensions that have spiked since his re-election May 20 in a vote boycotted by most opposition parties and denounced as illegitimate by the US, EU, Canada and at least a dozen Latin American countries.

The Trump administration tightened sanctions on Venezuela after the vote.

The Venezuelan president then retaliated by giving the two top US diplomats in the country 48 hours to leave, accusing them of conspiring against his government.

But on Friday, however, human rights monitors reported the release of 20 activists who had been jailed in the western state of Zulia for protesting against the government.

In taking the oath of office on Thursday, Maduro acknowledged that the sanctions are biting.

"I can't deceive anybody, they are going to create grave difficulties, painful difficulties."

"A profound rectification is needed, things have to be done anew and better. We are not doing things well and we have to change this country," he said.

The Venezuelan economy is in shambles, with hyperinflation expected to hit 13,000 percent this year and dire shortages of food that have driven hundreds of thousands of citizens to pour into neighboring Colombia and Brazil.

Maduro has blamed the US for his country's woes, but most economists point to years of destructive policies and corruption as well as a period of plunging oil prices.

Venezuela -- once one of Latin America's most prosperous countries -- has the world's largest oil reserves but oil production has fallen sharply in recent years amid corruption, disinvestment and the loss of skilled workers.

© 2018 AFP