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Venezuela suspends talks with opposition after Maduro ally extradited to the United States

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Venezuela suspends talks with opposition after Maduro ally extradited to the United States

Venezuela’s government said Saturday that it would suspend negotiations with the country’s U.S.-backed opposition in retaliation for the extradition of a close ally of President Nicolás Maduro to the United States, where he is wanted on money laundering charges.

Colombian businessman Alex Saab, 49, a Venezuelan envoy, was arrested in Cape Verde in June 2020 when his plane stopped in the African archipelago nation to refuel on the way to Iran.

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A U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman confirmed Saab had been extradited and will appear in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on Monday. She said the extradition was conducted “in full compliance” with all relevant Cape Verdean laws and court rulings, and expressed gratitude for the country’s assistance.

Venezuela’s main opposition parties recently ended their three-year boycott of elections organized by the government of Maduro, who was internationally condemned for claiming victory in tainted 2018 elections, abandoning one of the main tactics of their long struggle to oust the authoritarian socialist by agreeing to field gubernatorial and mayoral candidates in upcoming races.

Opposition leader Juan Guaidó denounced the decision to suspend talks. “Our commitment to do justice and advance an agreement that provides urgent solutions to Venezuelans remains intact and we will not rest until we achieve it,” Guaidó wrote on Twitter. “Every minute that is delayed is counted in lives.”

In a statement posted on Twitter, Venezuela accused the United States and Cape Verde of “kidnapping” Saab. “The government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela repudiates this grave violation of human rights against a Venezuelan citizen, invested as a diplomat and representative of our country before the world,” the statement said.

Flight tracker FlightAware showed a plane belonging to the U.S. Justice Department leaving the Amilcar Cabral International Airport on the island of Sal at 4: 53 p.m. local time on Saturday and landing in Miami at 9: 18 p.m.

Hours after Saab’s extradition, Venezuelan security forces reportedly picked up six former oil executives of Houston-based Citgo Petroleum, an oil refiner formerly controlled by the government of Maduro, who have been under house arrest since April.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the men — who were convicted and sentenced last year to lengthy prison terms in a corruption case that the United States says was marred by irregularities — were being returned to jail, or whether the move was connected in any way to Saab’s extradition. A lawyer for the men told the Associated Press that he didn’t know where they were being taken. All six men — acting president and chief executive José Ángel Pereira and vice presidents Tomeu Vadell, Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, Alirio Zambrano and José Luis Zambrano — were born in Venezuela. Five are naturalized U.S. citizens; one is a U.S. permanent resident.

The six men were arrested during a business trip to Caracas in November 2017 and charged with money laundering, embezzlement, racketeering and participating in organized crime, allegations they denied.

The “Citgo 6” were granted house arrest in December 2019, only to be re-jailed two months later on the same day that President Donald Trump welcomed Guaidó to the White House. They were granted house arrest again in April as a gesture of goodwill toward the Biden administration, the Associated Press reported at the time.

American authorities have been targeting Saab for years for his alleged involvement in a scheme to pay bribes to take advantage of Venezuela’s government-controlled exchange rate. The Trump administration sanctioned Saab in 2019 for allegedly orchestrating a vast corruption network that enabled Maduro and his regime to profit from a state-run food program amid widespread hunger in the oil-rich country. Saab has previously denied the charges as “politically motivated.”

Anthony Faiola contributed to this report.

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Venezuela suspends talks with opposition after Maduro ally extradited to the United States