Venezuela says suspects held Portuguese man in bunker for 11 months

CARACAS Fri Jun 21, 2013 4:38pm EDT

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan prosecutors have charged a woman and four men in connection with the kidnapping of a Portuguese man who was held captive in an underground bunker for nearly a year before being rescued this week.

Kidnapping and armed robberies are common in Venezuela, and the government of new President Nicolas Maduro is under pressure to reduce crime.

Authorities said the kidnappers demanded a $6.5 million ransom after they grabbed the 45-year-old victim and bundled him into a car on July 16, 2012.

The abduction occurred at a highway service station that the victim owns in the central state of Aragua, they said.

"After investigations ... the victim was found alive on the morning of June 19 in an underground bunker," the public prosecutor's office said in a statement on Friday, adding that the woman, Flor de Maria Ochoa of Colombia, was arrested at the scene.

Four Venezuelan men were arrested in the border state of Tachira, it said.

Local media named the businessman as Joao Dos Santos Correia and published photos of state security agents leading him to safety.

They also showed the bare cell where he was held for nearly a year - reached by removing floor boards from the closet of a rural residence in Carabobo state.

"Thank God I have returned to life," Correia told reporters.

Venezuela has one of the highest crime rates in the world. So-called "express kidnappings," in which victims are taken to cash machines, or held for a few hours until a ransom is paid, happen often. Months-long abductions are much rarer.

In May Maduro ordered thousands of troops onto the streets of the capital Caracas to tackle crime as part of a program dubbed "Secure Fatherland.

(Reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Xavier Briand)

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