The Latest: France demands release of Venezuela journalists


CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The latest on the political crisis in Venezuela (all times local):

6.35 p.m.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has congratulated the Drug Enforcement Administration for helping bring drug trafficking convictions against several members of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s family and inner circle.

The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Maduro’s socialist regime and it is backing the claim to Venezuela’s presidency by Juan Guaido, who heads the South American nation’s opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Speaking to several dozen DEA employees, Pence said Thursday: “Your investigations have targeted the corrupt narco-dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro and helped bring drug trafficking indictments and convictions against several members of Maduro’s family and inner circle.”

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Two nephews of Maduro’s wife were found guilty in New York of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. and sentenced in 2016 to 18 years in prison.


6:15 p.m.

The United States strongly rejects offers from Mexico, Uruguay and the Vatican to mediate a dialogue between embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the head of the country’s opposition-controlled congress, Juan Guaido.

A senior U.S. administration official explicitly mentioned the three in a briefing Thursday and added that “we reject any talks of any type of efforts that would allow Maduro to maintain himself in power.”

The official repeated the U.S. government’s position that Maduro is no longer the president of the country. Canada and many Latin American nations also have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president, arguing that Maduro’s re-election last May was invalid because his strongest opponents were barred from running.

The U.S. official briefed reporters on the condition of not being quoted by name.

Mexico and Uruguay announced Wednesday that they will hold an international conference Feb. 7 to discuss the Venezuela crisis. Both countries have not recognized Guaido as president.

—Luis Alonso Lugo

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5:30 p.m.

A U.S. official says the United States is ready to deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuela whenever and however is decided by Juan Guaido, the head of the opposition-controlled congress who is challenging President Nicolas Maduro.

The senior U.S. administration official says Maduro is the only obstacle to delivering medicine, food and other basic goods, which are all in extremely short supply in Venezuela because of a devastating economic crunch that has driven at least 3 million people to flee the country in recent years.

Guaido declared himself interim president last week and was quickly recognized by the U.S., Canada and many Latin American nations. The official says Guaido thus has the last word on “how, when and in what manner that aid enters the country.”

The official briefed reporters Thursday on the condition of not being quoted by name.

Maduro has refused to receive any international aid, arguing it would be interference in Venezuelan affairs.

—Luis Alonso Lugo


5:15 p.m.

Venezuela’s police force is denying that agents from a special operations unit visited opposition leader Juan Guaido’s family home.

In a statement on Twitter, the head of the national police says accusations that officers went to Guaido’s home Thursday are “totally FALSE.”

Earlier in the day, Guaido said agents from a feared police unit known for its brutal tactics arrived at his home asking for his wife. He accused police of trying to intimidate his family as he challenges Nicolas Maduro’s claim to Venezuela’s presidency.

Guaido said his young daughter was inside and he warned officers that if anything happened to her he would hold them accountable.

The pro-Maduro chief prosecutor’s office has initiated an investigation into Guaido’s anti-government activities and the government-stacked Supreme Court has barred him from leaving the country and frozen his bank accounts.


3 p.m.

The U.N. says Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has responded to a letter sent via Twitter by the president of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaido.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Thursday that Guterres reiterated the offer of his “good offices” to find a political solution to the current crisis and emphasized his public concern about the situation and its impact on the Venezuelan people.

Guaido declared himself Venezuela’s interim president last week and asked for international humanitarian assistance coordinated by the U.N. in the letter dated Jan. 26.

Dujarric said Guterres responded that “the United Nations is ready to increase its activities in Venezuela in the areas of humanitarian assistance and development.”

But Dujarric said the secretary-general told Guaido that to do this the United Nations needs “the consent and the cooperation” of Nicolas Maduro’s government, which is recognized by the U.N.

Dujarric said Guterres “again underscored that recognizing governments” is decided by the 193-member U.N. General Assembly, not the secretary-general.

The spokesman said Guterres’ letter to Guaido was also sent to Venezuela’s U.N. Mission and others who were copied on the letter sent by Guaido.


2:30 p.m.

A key U.S. customer for Venezuelan oil says it has stopped importing crude from the South American country due to recently imposed U.S. sanctions.

Valero Energy Corp. said it stopped taking deliveries of Venezuelan crude oil after the Trump administration slapped sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A.

Valero Senior Vice President Gary Simmons said the San Antonio, Texas, refinery is focused on finding an alternative to cover its next 30-day supply plan. Simmons said Venezuela has supplied 20 percent of the heavy sour crude the company runs in its refineries.

He also said that Valero had been putting alternatives in place due to Venezuela’s declining oil production but the company “still has some holes to fill in our supply plan.”

Simmons spoke Thursday on a conference call with Wall Street analysts.


2 p.m.

Spain’s state-run EFE news agency says three of its journalists have been freed after being detained overnight in Venezuela’s capital.

EFE reported Thursday that the journalists are with Spain’s assistant consul in Venezuela.

According to the news agency, Colombian photographer Leonardo Munoz disappeared Wednesday while on assignment and two other journalists were later taken from their office by members of Venezuela’s intelligence agency.

Two French journalists were also freed from detention on Thursday, and two Chilean journalists were ordered deported.

A union for Venezuelan journalists says that officials detained 19 journalists in January as the nation reels from political unrest.

Venezuelan foreign minister Jorge Arreaza says that “as in any country in the world” international journalists need to be accredited by the consulates in their countries in order to avoid “unnecessary inconveniences.”


1:40 p.m.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said security forces showed up at his wife’s apartment in an attempt to intimidate him.

“The dictatorship thinks it can intimidate us,” Guaido said at the end of a speech Thursday to present the opposition’s plan to rescue Venezuela from its economic crisis.

He said his 20-month-old daughter was at the Caracas apartment.

Neighbors immediately rushed to the high-rise apartment building banging pots and pans.

The police appeared to leave shortly after they arrived.


1 p.m.

A media outlet in France says two French journalists have been freed from detention in Venezuela.

The official Twitter account of the TMC television program Quotidien tweeted Thursday that Baptiste des Monstiers and Pierre Caille had been released by Venezuelan authorities and “will soon return to Paris.”

The journalists were arrested Tuesday.

Earlier Thursday, the French Foreign Ministry said it had been in contact with Caracas and had demanded their release “since the moment our compatriots were arrested.” It did not suggest a motive for the arrests or provide further information.

Jorge Arreaza, the foreign minister of embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, has blamed foreign journalists for entering the country without work permits.


12:50 p.m.

Venezuelan officials say security forces have taken down a “terrorists” group backed by political opponents plotting to assassinate embattled President Nicolas Maduro.

Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said Thursday that retired National Guard Col. Oswaldo Garcia Palomo was among those detained.

Garcia Palomo has been an outspoken critic of Maduro who for months has openly declared his intentions to amass a military force in exile to remove Maduro from power.

Palomo’s wife Sorbay Padilla has said that she last heard from him Sunday after he entered the country clandestinely from Colombia.

Reverol accuses Colombian intelligence, the CIA and exiled Venezuelan lawmaker Julio Borges of being behind the alleged mercenary group.

He says security forces seized two rifles and 500 armbands bearing the letters “OC,” which he says stands for “Operation Constitution.”


10:45 a.m.

The French Foreign Ministry says it has demanded that Venezuelan authorities release two French journalists working for television channel TMC.

The journalists were arrested on Tuesday.

In a press statement Thursday, the Quai d’Orsay said it has been in contact with officials in Caracas “since the moment our compatriots were arrested.”

It did not suggest a motive for the arrests or provide further information.

Jorge Arreaza, the foreign minister of embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, has blamed foreign journalists for entering the country without work permits.

The European Parliament meanwhile has called on the European Union’s member states to recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the interim president as Venezuela’s political crisis deepens.


10:30 a.m.

An independent U.N. human rights monitor says economic sanctions are compounding a “grave crisis” in Venezuela.

Idriss Jazairy, a special rapporteur focusing on the negative impact of sanctions, expressed concern about “reports” that the U.S. sanctions were “aimed at changing the government of Venezuela.” He did not specify the reports.

He added: “The use of sanctions by outside powers to overthrow an elected government is in violation of all norms of international law.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to use the “full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy.” The Trump administration slapped sanctions on Venezuela that could starve the country of billions in oil revenue.

Jazairy’s office has taken funds from donors including Russia, one of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s staunchest supporters.

Special rapporteurs do not speak for the United Nations, but are appointed by the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council.


9:45 a.m.

The spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry says there are no plans underway for evacuation of the country’s diplomats or other citizens from Venezuela, but is declining to comment on why a Russian airliner showed up in the Venezuelan capital’s airport.

The arrival of the Boeing 777 belonging to Russian airline Nordwind on Monday has led to widespread speculation, including that Venezuelan officials might be aiming to spirit tons of gold reserves out of the country as a political crisis deepens.

The Associated Press was unable to verify the authenticity of that claim.

Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters Thursday that she could not comment on the airliner, “which was not sent for official goals.”

“I can say that this is not about evacuation of Russian diplomats, or their family members or Russian citizens that are employees of overseas agencies or companies,” she said.


9:15 a.m.

The European Parliament is calling on the European Union’s member states to recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the interim president.

The 28-member bloc is still defining its position on the crisis there.

The EU legislature approved by a 439-104 margin a resolution that also condemned the continued violence and the detention of journalists who sought to cover events there.

“All of Venezuela is watching us,” said Esteban Gonzalez Pons of the Christian Democrat EPP group. “Let’s make Venezuelan history today by recognizing the democratic and legitimate power of Venezuela.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called on the South American country to release journalists who were arrested covering the crisis.

“We expect them to be released immediately,” she said in Bucharest where EU foreign ministers are set to discuss the crisis later Thursday.


5 a.m.

The Spanish government has condemned the detention of three reporters and a driver working for Spain’s state-run EFE news agency in Venezuela’s capital.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s office issued a statement Thursday calling for their immediate release.

EFE has reported that Colombian photographer Leonardo Munoz disappeared on Wednesday morning in Caracas and that two more reporters, Spaniard Gonzalo Dominguez and Colombian Mauren Barriga, were later taken away from their office by members of Venezuelan intelligence service Sebin. Spain’s government says a Venezuelan driver working for the news agency was also taken into custody. He wasn’t identified.

Sanchez has said that Spain’s government will endorse Juan Guaido as interim president of Venezuela if embattled President Nicolas Maduro doesn’t call a presidential election by Sunday.

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