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Venezuelan bank robbers arrested, hostages freed

ALTAGRACIA DE ORITUCO, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan police swooped 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 robbery at the bank in this sleepy central Venezuelan farming town on Monday and, when cornered by hundreds of police, they seized dozens of employees and customers.

Hostages said as many as 60 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.

State governor Eduardo Manuitt said the ambulance drove to the outskirts of the capital city Caracas before being detained on a highway by police, who convinced the robbers to hand themselves in and free the remaining hostages.

“We have the four baddies totally under our control on the ground,” Manuitt said in a telephone call to state television from the scene. “The nightmare is over and happily the criminals are arrested.”

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.

It was not clear if the robbers had stolen money from the bank before boarding the ambulance.

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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 and one security guard escaped.

“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 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