Utah man, wife freed from Venezuela, return to US

US Vice President Mike Pence

At a news conference in Caracas earlier on Saturday, Venezuelan Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez said Holt and his wife were freed as part of efforts by Maduro's government to maintain "respectful diplomatic relations" with Washington.

Venezuela held Holt and other USA citizens in the Helicoide political prison in Caracas, where inmates staged an uprising earlier this month.

The 26-year-old Holt had gone to Venezuela in June 2016 to marry a woman he met online while he was looking for Spanish-speaking Mormons to help him improve his Spanish. Venezuela has held Holt and his wife on weapons charges without a trial since 2016.

Holt says he has "been begging my government for two years". Jailed in Venezuela on weapons charges almost two years ago, Holt was released Saturday after a USA senator pressed for his freedom in a surprise meeting with President Nicolas Maduro. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., traveled to Caracas on Friday and was shown on state television shaking hands with the president.

Trump says 17 prisoners have been freed from overseas captivity since he's been president and that others would be coming. He recently appeared in a secretly shot video in which he begged for help from the US government, and claimed his life was being threatened.

The details of what led to Holt's release were not immediately clear.

The next morning, they were told to pack their things and prepare to go.

Trump invited Joshua Holt, 26, of Riverton, Utah, and his family to the White House after Holt's expected arrival in Washington on a flight out of Venezuela.

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U.S. authorities had been denied access to a court hearing on Holt's case in December, with Trump labelling the USA citizen a "hostage" of the Venezuela administration.

Authorities accused him of stockpiling an assault rifle and grenades, and suggested that his case was linked to other unspecified USA attempts to undermine Mr Maduro's rule amid deep economic and political turbulence.

"I'm just overwhelmed with gratitude for you guys, for everything that you've done", Holt said.

Trump had previewed his plans to meet Holt earlier in the day on Twitter. "Sanctions continue until democracy returns to Venezuela", Pence said in a tweet.

After Trump strengthened the sanctions, Maduro retaliated by giving the two top United States diplomats in the country 48 hours to leave, accusing them of conspiring against his government.

Holt's release came as Maduro appears to be on a public relations offensive following the widely condemned elections last week, seeking to make gestures toward his worldwide and domestic critics.

The US also refuses to recognise Maduro's re-election as president in a vote last week that was largely boycotted by the opposition.

Holt and his wife were being held at a prison in Caracas known as the Helicoide where the Sebin keeps political prisoners.

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