(Adds statement from U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams)
CARACAS, July 31 (Reuters) - Two of the six former Citgo Petroleum Corp executives detained in Venezuela were moved to house arrest, veteran U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson said late on Thursday, weeks after he visited the country to seek their release.
The former New Mexico governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations traveled to Caracas and met with socialist President Nicolas Maduro earlier this month as part of a private humanitarian mission on behalf of the families of American prisoners in Venezuela.
The two prisoners moved to house arrest, Gustavo Cardenas and Jorge Toledo, were among the six arrested in 2017 on embezzlement charges that the U.S. government and their lawyers say are baseless. Five of the executives of Citgo, the U.S. refining unit of Venezuela’s state oil company, have American citizenship.
“This is a positive and important first step,” Richardson wrote on Twitter. “We are grateful to President Nicolas Maduro and Vice President Jorge Rodriguez for this gesture and for continuing to engage in the productive dialogue on the American detainees ...”
Venezuela’s information ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Caracas and Washington cut diplomatic ties last year after the Trump administration tightened sanctions on Venezuela in an attempt to oust Maduro, who it accuses of rigging his 2018 re-election.
Elliott Abrams, Washington’s special representative for Venezuela, called the move a “positive step that we are glad to see.”
“Of course, we hope others follow,” Abrams said in a statement.
Venezuela’s government is also holding two former U.S. special forces soldiers, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who allegedly led a failed incursion attempt aimed at capturing Maduro in May.
Richardson has a history of working to get Americans released from captivity by hostile governments. He was involved in securing U.S. missionary Joshua Holt’s freedom from Venezuelan detention in 2018. (Reporting by Deisy Buitrago in Caracas and Luc Cohen in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)