By Vivian Sequera and Corina Pons
CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s government released an American journalist and his local colleague on Wednesday, after they spent more than 12 hours in custody in a move that drew further international condemnation of socialist President Nicolas Maduro’s government.
In the latest crackdown on a challenge to his rule by opposition leader Juan Guaido, Maduro also expelled the German ambassador, accusing him of repeated meddling in the country’s affairs. The United States said it was set to impose sanctions on banks to ramp up pressure on Maduro to leave office.
Most Western countries, including the United States and Germany, have recognized Guaido as the OPEC nation’s legitimate head of state and back his plan to install a transition government ahead of free elections. Guaido says Maduro’s re-election last year resulted from a sham vote and blames him for an economic collapse that has led to widespread shortages and hyperinflation.
Maduro – who says he is the victim of an attempted coup and “economic war” led by the United States – retains control of state functions and the support of the armed forces.
Venezuelan military counterintelligence agents detained American journalist Cody Weddle and his Venezuelan colleague, Carlos Camacho, early on Wednesday, Venezuela’s National Press Workers Union said on Twitter.
Camacho was released in the evening after 12 hours in custody, the union said, while Miami television station WPLG Local 10 said Weddle had also been released and was at the main Caracas-area airport waiting to board a U.S.-bound flight.
WPLG, one of the outlets for which Weddle worked, did not cite its sources on his release, but said his mother was “relieved” to learn the news. Reuters was unable to reach Weddle for comment
Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his release. The government had not commented on his detention all day.
Weddle’s arrest, which came a week after Venezuela deported a team from U.S. television network Univision, was condemned by Guaido, Organization of American States Secretary-General Luis Almagro and several U.S. lawmakers from both major parties.
Kimberly Breier, the top U.S. diplomat for the Western Hemisphere, said on Twitter that the State Department was “aware of and deeply concerned with reports that another U.S. journalist has been detained in Venezuela,” without naming Weddle.
The incident threatened to worsen already-fraught relations between Venezuela and the United States, which has reduced its diplomatic presence in the country after Maduro said in January he would break ties.
The United States slapped sanctions on Venezuela’s vital oil industry in January to try to cut off government revenue and force Maduro out, and pledged further action on Wednesday. A senior official in the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump said it had identified efforts by Maduro to work with foreign banks to move and hide money.
“We will be sanctioning some in the days and weeks to come,” the official said, hours after White House national security adviser John Bolton warned foreign banks they could face sanctions if they participated in transactions benefiting Maduro.
The United States will also revoke the visas of 77 people associated with Maduro, Vice President Mike Pence said, adding to a list of 49 others whose visas were revoked last Friday.
On Wednesday, Maduro’s government declared German ambassador Daniel Kriener persona non grata, days after he and diplomats from other embassies welcomed Guaido home at the Caracas airport.
Guaido had flouted a court-imposed travel ban to visit other Latin American countries to drum up support.
The government gave Kriener 48 hours to leave the country, but did not provide specific details on why he was being expelled.
“Venezuela considers it unacceptable that a foreign diplomat carries out in its territory a public role closer to that of a political leader aligned with the conspiratorial agenda of extremist sectors of the Venezuelan opposition,” it said in a statement.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called the move “an incomprehensible decision, which escalates the situation instead of easing tensions.” European support for Guaido was “unwavering,” he added.
(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Mayela Armas and Vivian Sequera; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington; Writing by Angus Berwick and Luc Cohen; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Peter Cooney)