Venezuelan bank robbers arrested, hostages freed

ALTAGRACIA DE ORITUCO, Venezuela Wed Jan 30, 2008 7:27am EST

1 of 13. Unidentified hostages stand inside a bank branch in Altagracia de Orituco in the central state of Guarico, south of Caracas, January 29, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Edwin Montilva

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ALTAGRACIA DE ORITUCO, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan police swooped down on an ambulance used by robbers escaping a bank siege on Tuesday, arresting all four men and freeing a group of captives to end a two-day hostage standoff.

The four men had botched a raid at the bank in this sleepy central Venezuelan farming town on Monday and they seized dozens of employees and customers when cornered by hundreds of police.

More than 50 people were held captive before the assailants negotiated an escape plan earlier on Tuesday and sped away from the bank in a white ambulance with six of their captives.

Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin said the ambulance was driven erratically and at high speed to the outskirts of the capital city Caracas, where police stopped it on a highway and convinced the robbers to hand themselves in and free the remaining hostages.

"They nearly crashed several times," he said. "It was then that we decided to intercept the vehicle to safeguard their lives and those of the hostages."

Rodriguez Chacin said the men had been drinking and using drugs, and that one of the assailants had accidentally shot himself in the leg.

The four men, all in their twenties and carrying pistols and a hand grenade, had threatened to kill hostages if security forces stormed the bank or tried to storm the getaway vehicle.

All the loot stolen from the bank was recovered.

Hundreds of police were deployed during the standoff and helicopters clattered over the branch of Banco Provincial, owned by Spain's BBVA. Shots were fired at one point, and one security guard managed to escape.

"The most hard hitting moment was the first shot when they wanted to kill the guard who later escaped," said one of the hostages, 19-year-old Jeancarlos Gil.

The hostages freed at the bank included a pregnant woman, an infant and several other child captives. None were seriously wounded, although a few were carried away on stretchers and more than 20 were taken to the hospital for check-ups.

The siege highlighted the scourge of crime across the OPEC nation, which has one of the world's highest rates of gun-related deaths.

President Hugo Chavez, a leftist and fierce critic of the United States, has vowed to tackle the problem and warns his political allies that voters could back the opposition in elections this year if the government fails to make headway.

(Writing by Saul Hudson; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Kieran Murray)

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