UPDATE 1-Swiss give U.S. $51 mln in assets frozen in PDVSA investigation

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ZURICH/CARACAS, Oct 25 (Reuters) - Switzerland has transferred about $51 million in formerly frozen assets to the United States in connection with an investigation into alleged corruption at Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA, authorities said on Tuesday.

The funds are linked to two Venezuelan oil magnates who have pleaded guilty in the United States to violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for their role in a PDVSA bribery scheme to which U.S. authorities have linked more than $1 billion, Swiss officials said.

Critics have long accused PDVSA, the financial motor of President Nicolas Maduro’s leftist administration, of corruption. The company has maintained it is the target of a right-wing smear campaign, led by the United States and compliant international media, to sabotage socialism.

The U.S. Justice Department has said a large investigation into bribery at PDVSA, which manages the world’s largest oil reserves, is still underway.

In December, the United States asked Switzerland to freeze $118 million in assets targeted in the probe, the Swiss Federal Office of Justice (FOJ) said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.

It said it had ordered the transfer of about $51 million of the assets to a U.S. Treasury forfeiture account on Oct. 11. “The rest of the assets of $67 million still remain frozen,” the FOJ said.

PDVSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A report by the opposition-led Venezuelan Congress accused PDVSA of corruption last week, saying about $11 billion in funds went missing while Rafael Ramirez, currently Venezuela’s U.N. envoy, was at the helm from 2004-14. Ramirez slammed the report as “irresponsible lies.”

The alleged $11 billion includes funds linked to the bribery scheme involving oil magnates Roberto Rincon and Abraham Shiera, who still await sentencing in the United States.

The pair’s indictment said five PDVSA officials received hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, which were paid chiefly in the form of wire transfers but also through mortgage payments, airline tickets and, in one case, whiskey.

PDVSA originally said the case was part of a wider U.S.-led conspiracy but in its 2015 financial statement it said an internal probe found it had been the “victim of fraud.”

Venezuelan opposition leaders and activists say the government has stymied probes into wrongdoing at PDVSA by refusing to hand over information.

“We regret that in this country we haven’t been able to open a better investigation due to lack of cooperation from authorities, who appear to be trying to protect these crooks,” Elias Matta, an opposition lawmaker and vice president of the congressional energy and oil commission, told Reuters after the news from Switzerland.

Attorneys for Rincon and Shiera did not immediately respond to a request for comment. (Additonal reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Patricia Zengerle in Washington D.C.; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Catherine Evans and Tom Brown)