Venezuela suspends crisis negotiations as key Nicolas Maduro ally extradited to US

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A close aide of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has been extradited to the United States on money laundering charges, sparking talks aimed at easing the country’s political crisis.

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Prosecutors believe Colombian businessman Alex Saab, who was arrested in June 2020 when his plane stopped for refueling in Cape Verde, is by far the most important witness to corruption in the South American nation. It is possible. His lawyers said the allegations were “politically motivated”.

The 49-year-old Venezuelan envoy is due for his initial appearance in court in Miami on Monday, a US Justice Department spokesman said, welcomed by the country’s Washington-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido, who also claims to be president. .

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But the Venezuelan government reacted furiously to his extradition from the mid-Atlantic archipelago, which it dubbed a “hijacking”, displaying months of quiet diplomacy with the new administration of US President Joe Biden.

In retaliation, Mr Maduro’s government said it would not travel to Mexico City on Sunday for the latest round of international arbitration talks with Mr Guaidó opposed, in a move that could delay further easing of US sanctions. which has exacerbated Venezuela’s severe economic collapse. .

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Venezuelan security forces also detained and jailed six US oil executives.

Known as Citgo 6, former executives of the Houston subsidiary of Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA were arrested in Caracas in 2017 and are serving long sentences on Washington’s conviction.

The men’s families expressed their disappointment with both governments. “The fact that Mr. Saab is in America before my father is a disgrace,” said Christina Weddell, who told the new York Times That her 62-year-old father, Tomeu Waddell, was taken to the infamous El Helicoid prison in Caracas.

His return to prison after six months of detention is “additional evidence that these Americans have been taken hostage”, Ms Waddell said, urging the Biden administration to “recognize this and win their release immediately”.

US officials have been targeting Mr Saab for years in the belief that he may uncover the secret of how Venezuela is selling crude gold and tankers in violation of US sanctions.

He also believes he has many secrets about how Mr. Maduro, his family and his top aides allegedly made millions in government contracts for food and housing amid widespread hunger in oil-rich Venezuela. Dollar misappropriation.

Federal prosecutors in Miami indicted Mr Saab in 2019 on money-laundering charges linked to an alleged bribery scheme that raised more than $350m (£255m) from a low-income housing project for the Venezuelan government.

Separately, Mr Saab was sanctioned by the Trump administration for allegedly using a worldwide network of shell companies to hide huge profits obtained through bribes and favors from no-bid, overvalued food contracts.

The Trump administration alleged that some of Mr. Saab’s contracts were obtained by bribing the adult children of Venezuela’s First Lady, Cilia Flores. commonly known as Children – “Kids” – In Venezuela, he is under investigation in Miami for allegedly being part of a plan to extort $1.2bn (£880m) from a Venezuelan state-owned oil company, according to two people familiar with the investigation.

But the Venezuelan government, which insists that Mr Saab was acting as an envoy on a humanitarian mission during his arrest en route to Iran, said his extradition “sets a dangerous precedent for international law”. does”.

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