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US demands Venezuela free Citgo executives as virus hits

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Washington (AFP)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday demanded that Venezuela release six detained former Citgo executives, five of whom are US citizens, due to risks from the coronavirus.

"They have already spent more than two years in jail without an ounce of evidence being brought against them; it is time to release them on humanitarian grounds," Pompeo said in a statement.

Pompeo said that all six men have weakened immune systems and "face a grave health risk if they become infected" with the novel coronavirus.

The six former Citgo executives -- five dual US-Venezuela nationals and one a US resident -- were first arrested in November 2017 and accused of crimes including money laundering.

They deny the charges and their supporters say that Venezuela's judiciary does the bidding of President Nicolas Maduro, who has been widely accused of corruption.

Citgo is the US subsidiary of state-run Venezuelan oil firm PDVSA, which has been under growing pressure as Washington tries to topple the leftist president.

The United States has shielded Citgo from Venezuela's creditors, not allowing Maduro to use the subsidiary to pay off mounting debt.

Humanitarian groups have warned of potential devastation in Venezuela from the global pandemic, with the country's infrastructure already in shambles after years of economic crisis.

Maduro has sought a $5 billion loan to cope with coronavirus from the International Monetary Fund, which denied the request as dozens of countries no longer recognize his government.

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