A supporter of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro holds a Venezuelan flag during the May Day celebrations in Caracas, Venezuela May 1, 2022. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/File Photo

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WASHINGTON, July 12 (Reuters) – Venezuela arrested three U.S. citizens earlier this year accused of trying to enter the South American country illegally and is currently holding them, according to the U.S. State Department and people familiar with the matter.

President Nicolas Maduro’s government has sought to keep the three Americans’ arrests quiet while continuing nascent diplomatic contacts with the Biden administration, one of the sources said.

The men being detained are in addition to eight other Americans known to have been jailed in Venezuela, including five former executives of Citgo Petroleum, a U.S.-based unit of Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA, held since 2017.

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The Venezuelan government did not respond to a request for comment. The Associated Press was first to report on the additional prisoners.

“We can confirm the arrest of U.S. citizens in Venezuela in January and March of this year,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We take seriously our commitment to assist U.S. citizens abroad. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment.”

The U.S. government considers the men, all arrested in separate incidents, to be wrongfully detained, according to the person familiar with the matter.

Los Angeles lawyer Eyvin Hernandez, 44, and Texas computer programmer Jerrel Kenemore, 52, were both detained in March, while a third unnamed American was taken into custody in January, the Associated Press reported.

They are accused of crossing into Venezuela illegally and of other unspecified offenses, sources said. The State Department declined to confirm their names.

It was unclear why they traveled to Venezuela. A May 19 State Department travel advisory urged Americans not to go to Venezuela, due to, among other reasons, the risk of detention “without due process.”

The March arrests followed Venezuela’s release of two Americans earlier in the month after a visit by the highest-level U.S. delegation in years. A second U.S. delegation that visited in June failed to secure freedom for any prisoners. read more

U.S. officials have used the trips not only to try to free Americans but to coax Maduro to restart stalled talks with the country’s opposition in Mexico to discuss democratic elections, according to people familiar with the matter. The Socialist leader has yet to agree to a date for negotiations.

The tenuous re-engagement after years of hostilities between the United States and OPEC member Venezuela has come as Russia’s war against Ukraine has hit global oil supplies.

Talks during last month’s visit, which included U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela James Story, covered political matters but not Venezuela’s oil sector, under U.S. sanctions since 2019, sources said.

Several detainees’ families issued a statement on Monday urging Secretary of State Antony Blinken to replace Story, accusing him of undermining efforts to free prisoners by prioritizing policy issues.

The State Department, asked about the accusations, said: “We are grateful for the partnership, feedback and advocacy of families who have loved ones wrongfully detained abroad.”

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Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Humeyra Pamuk; additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas and Marianna Parraga in Houston; Editing by Leslie Adler and Rosalba O’Brien

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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