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Venezuelan hostage standoff ends, gunmen arrested


Four gunmen freed dozens of hostages and surrendered to police after a high-speed chase, ending an ordeal in Venezuela that began with a botched bank robbery and lasted more than 30 hours.

Police blocked a highway Tuesday to intercept the gunmen as they raced away from the bank where they seized 52 hostages a day earlier, Justice Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin said. Once the men were stopped, they released the last five hostages they brought with them in an ambulance, tossed down their guns and were arrested.

"The hostages are free," Guarico state Gov. Eduardo Manuitt announced. "This nightmare is over."

One of the gunmen accidentally shot himself in the leg when his gun went off during the chase, but none of the hostages was seriously hurt, Rodriguez said, calling it a "100 percent" success.

The gunmen were captured less than two hours after they fled the bank in an ambulance under a deal negotiated with police. The standoff at the Banco Provincial branch was the longest in at least a decade in Venezuela, and every twist and turn became a spectacle in TV and radio news across the country and in neighboring Colombia.

Police allowed the gunmen to flee the bank because "they threatened to start killing the hostages in 20 minutes," Manuitt said. 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.

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," Gonzalez said through tears outside the bank.

Of the 52 people taken hostage at the bank in the town southeast of Caracas on Monday, five were released during the standoff and two managed to escape, Rodriguez said. After another five left in the ambulance, 40 were left behind and freed, he said.

Relatives and onlookers massed at the front door while the hostages were led to waiting ambulances.

Those freed included 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.

The four gunmen had 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.

As the hours wore on the gunmen were friendly with many captives, freed hostage Juan Carlos Gil said.

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

His account differed from that of the justice minister, who said the gunmen had been taking drugs, making the situation volatile. Gil said he never saw any of the gunmen use drugs and that they appeared sober.

But 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."

The Colombian radio station also contacted the gunmen, one of whom said: "I haven't eaten anything. ... I've kept myself going on sugar."

Rodriguez celebrated what he called impeccable work by police and lashed out at what he called the "yellow journalism" of some Venezuelan and Colombian media, saying they tried to use "images of terror" to create panic in the population.

He said he plans to lodge a complaint with Venezuela's broadcast regulatory agency against some media outlets. He did not elaborate.


Associated Press writer Vivian Sequera, in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.