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CARACAS (Reuters) - Mexico's ambassador to Caracas and his wife were kidnapped overnight and then freed on Monday in the latest high profile abduction in Venezuela, where violent crime is routinely listed as citizens' No. 1 worry.
In the typical style of "express" kidnappings that are rife in the South American country, four armed men seized envoy Carlos Pujalte and his wife as they left a reception in the capital's wealthy Country Club neighbourhood by car at around midnight (0430 GMT), diplomats and officials said.
The kidnappers released the couple in a slum before dawn.
"We are so happy he's safe. I've been up following the case all night," said a senior European diplomat, whose own security has been beefed up in recent months.
Details remained sketchy, but Venezuela's government said security forces launched an operation that forced the gunmen to free their captives. It did not elaborate, but said the envoy's car was found in another part of the city.
The incident underlined voters' fears about kidnappings, robberies and murders that are common in the OPEC nation, which has enormous oil wealth alongside deep poverty. The attorney general's office said a full investigation had been launched.
Mexico's Foreign Ministry said Pujalte and his spouse were in good health after the incident, and a spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Caracas said they were giving statements to the police.
"We regret this situation deeply," spokesman Fernando Godinez told a local radio station.
Senior diplomats from Chile and Belarus were also seized in Caracas in similar incidents last year, according to diplomatic sources. The Chilean consul, Juan Carlos Fernandez, was shot and beaten during his kidnapping in November.
Robbery was the assumed motive in those abductions.
"We don't know yet what happened last night, if they robbed the Mexican ambassador or asked for a ransom or what," said one foreign security expert at a embassy in Caracas who was tracking the case closely. "It's a worrying trend though."
Major League Baseball star Wilson Ramos, a catcher for the Washington Nationals, was also kidnapped by gunmen during a visit to his parents' home late last year. He was freed two days later by security forces who raided the gang's mountain hideout.
Worries about personal security routinely top surveys of voters' concerns ahead of a presidential election this October, when President Hugo Chavez will seek a new six-year term.
Police are often accused of being involved in serious crimes, and the homicide rate in Caracas makes it one of the most dangerous cities in the world, as bad as some war zones.
Though rich and poor alike complain constantly about insecurity in Venezuela, the issue has traditionally not weighed heavily on Chavez's approval ratings.
The latest poll released on Monday by the local Hinterlaces company gave him a 64 percent approval rating, with 50 percent of those surveyed saying they would vote for him in October.
"Chavez supporters have a strong emotional attachment to him and this has led some of them to fail to assess the situation objectively despite the statistics and the growing evidence of the government's responsibility (for crime)," said Venezuelan analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos of the IHS Global Insight think-tank.
Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami says Venezuela's official annual murder rate is around 48 per 100,000 residents, but non-governmental organizations put the figure higher.
The Venezuelan Violence Observatory, for example, said murders doubled in the last decade to reach a record of more than 19,000 - or about 60 per 100,000 people - last year.
"But in Venezuela we have not had a war. How can this be explained?" the NGO asked in its latest report, saying political polarization underpinned the problem.
Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo in Caracas and Miguel Angel Guitierrez in Mexico City; Editing by Daniel Wallis