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Archive for Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Hostage standoff ends after more than 24 hours

January 30, 2008

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Hostages held by gunmen inside a bank show their despair in Altagracia de Orituco, Venezuela. Gunmen held more than 50 people hostage for more than 24 hours during a standoff with police that began with a botched robbery Monday. The sign in Spanish reads "Please."

Hostages held by gunmen inside a bank show their despair in Altagracia de Orituco, Venezuela. Gunmen held more than 50 people hostage for more than 24 hours during a standoff with police that began with a botched robbery Monday. The sign in Spanish reads "Please."

— Police let four gunmen get away in an ambulance after a more than 24-hour hostage standoff at a bank, but the fugitives soon found there was no escape.

Followed by a helicopter, the gunmen and five hostages they brought along were tracked down by police who stopped the ambulance on a roadside. First, the men let three hostages go. Then, after a bit of negotiating, they tossed down their guns, freed their last two captives and stepped out.

"They're turning themselves in," Guarico state Gov. Eduardo Manuitt said excitedly, narrating the scene on television by phone as he followed along with police. The men were ordered to the ground as police arrested them.

"The hostages are free," Manuitt said. "This nightmare is over."

The arrests meant freedom for the last of the 52 hostages whose ordeal began Monday morning during 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, and every twist and turn became a spectacle in TV and radio news across the country and in neighboring Colombia.

As the standoff dragged on, the gunmen accepted a package with diapers and a bottle for a 2-week-old baby who was among the captives. 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.

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

Other officials had earlier given lower estimates of about 30 hostages inside the bank.

Relatives and onlookers massed at the front door while the former 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.

The standoff began after the gunmen entered the bank Monday morning and 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.

"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.

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