Gunmen arrested after crisis in Venezuela

January 29, 2008 3:21:30 PM PST
Gunmen who held more than 30 hostages inside a Venezuelan bank for over 24 hours negotiated their getaway in an ambulance Tuesday and sped off with five captives, freeing the rest. The gunmen first let three hostages go and then negotiated with police while holding on to the last two, Guarico state Gov. Eduardo Manuitt said.

"This nightmare is over," Manuitt told state television. They eventually turned over their guns and a grenade, and then were ordered to the ground as police arrested them, Manuitt said. The pursuit ended less than two hours after the gunmen fled the bank under a deal negotiated with police.

The arrests ended an ordeal that began Monday morning with a botched bank robbery in this town southeast of Caracas. The hostage standoff at the Banco Provincial branch was the longest in at least a decade in Venezuela.

In the final hours, some hostages inside the bank held up signs in the windows with desperate pleas for help and used cell phones to call their relatives.

Under the deal with police, the gunmen were permitted to leave with five hostages who agreed to accompany them, freeing the rest of the captives at the bank. Police allowed the gunmen to flee because "they threatened to start killing the hostages in 20 minutes," Manuitt said.

One of the hostages who later left with the gunmen, Vanessa Saavedra, spoke quietly and haltingly to Colombia's Caracol Radio by cell phone from inside the bank, saying: "We don't want them to shoot ... We don't want them to open fire. Please."

Saavedra's mother, Jasmin Gonzalez, said her daughter - a 25-year-old teller - volunteered to leave with the gunmen. "She's very brave. I know she's going to come out of this fine," Gonzalez said through tears outside the bank.

It was not immediately known how many hostages were freed as relatives and onlookers massed at the front door of the bank and some were led to waiting ambulances. Bank executive Leon Enrique Cottin said earlier Tuesday that 33 hostages were held captive, but Manuitt said after the siege that nearly 40 hostages were freed at the bank.

Those freed were believed to include a 2-week-old infant, at least three other children under the age of 10, and a woman who is eight months pregnant. She was wheeled out reclining on a stretcher.

One man emerged with a bandaged hand, carrying a girl in his arms, and got into an ambulance.

"After five or six hours, they began to let down their guard saying, 'You aren't going to die,"' freed hostage Juan Carlos Gil told The Associated Press of his captors. "They were nervous, but it was all an atmosphere as if they were everyone's friends."

His account differed from that of Justice Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, who said during the standoff that the gunmen had been taking drugs, making the situation volatile.

Gil said he never saw any of the gunmen use drugs and they appeared sober.

The four gunmen entered the bank Monday morning when a uniformed police officer pulled up to use the cash machine and surprised the would-be robbers, said Amanda Saldivia, a reporter for the local Guarana Radio FM.

Seven captives made it out of the bank during the standoff, including several who were released and two who fled.

Saavedra said she was terrified when the men pointed a gun at a security guard and threatened him. "He went out running and they shot at him" but missed, Saavedra told Caracol. "It was truly horrific."

A man identified as one of the gunmen who gave his name as Jorge spoke to Caracol during the standoff, saying "people have the sense that we're going to leave."

Shortly before the deal was reached, one of the hostages broke a window in desperation, and one of the gunmen fired a shot in response, Manuitt said.

Officials did not immediately say if the gunmen left with any money.

Police officers with assault rifles took up positions at windows directly above the bank during the standoff, and then stood down at the urging of a hostage as the ambulance pulled up to ferry the group away.

Security cameras captured images of the gunmen until the cameras went dead - apparently cut off by the men - and the footage was turned over to authorities, said Cottin, the Venezuela president of Spain's Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria, or BBVA, which owns Banco Provincial.

As for the gunmen, Manuitt told state television, "We think they don't have much experience because of the sort of weapons they carry and by their behavior." He said they carried handguns and "a type of grenade."

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Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera, in Bogota, Colombia, and Daniel Woolls in Madrid, Spain, contributed to this report. (Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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