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Pence calls for release of Americans held in Venezuela

WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence called on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to immediately release six American oil executives who have been jailed for more than a year without trial, but he acknowledged, practically in the same breath, that their freedom will be slow to come as long as Maduro remains in power.

The U.S. is among scores of countries that contend Maduro's election last year was illegitimate and that support opposition leader Juan Guaido's claim to the presidency. The U.S. has imposed economic sanctions on Venezuela in an attempt to force Maduro to step down, but he so far has maintained his hold on power while accusing the U.S. of attempting to overthrow him.

"The United States today calls for the immediate release of these six individuals," Pence said at a White House meeting with relatives of those who have been held for nearly 18 months while the Venezuelan government has postponed multiple court hearings in the case.

"Of course, we recognize that none of that will happen so long as Nicolas Maduro remains in power," the vice president added. Pence said the five American citizens and one legal permanent U.S. resident, all with roots in Texas and Louisiana, are being "illegally detained."

The men, all employees of Houston-based Citgo, a longtime U.S. subsidiary of the Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA, were summoned to Caracas in November 2017 for a last-minute budget meeting but were arrested and charged with embezzlement stemming from a never-executed proposal to refinance some $4 billion in Citgo bonds.

Their families claim the charges are bogus and complain that their loved ones are kept in inhumane conditions in basement cells in a military counterintelligence prison with limited access to food and medicine. One relative told Pence she worries about her father's health and safety. It's been about a month since her last contact with him, she said.

Another relative expressed confidence in the Trump administration's record in winning freedom for Americans detained abroad. Pence assured the group that "we're with you, and we're going to stand with you until your loved ones are free and until Venezuela is free."

Follow Darlene Superville on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dsupervillap

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