Sun, Feb 20, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Venezuela police successfully save kidnapped mum

AN AMAZING MISSION Kidnappers demanded a US$6 million ransom, but special anti-kidnapping forces were able to storm the camp and rescue her


Venezuelan police stormed a mountain camp and rescued the mother of Detroit Tigers pitcher Ugueth Urbina from kidnappers in a raid that left at least one of her abductors dead, authorities said.

Urbina was reunited with his mother late Friday at a police station in Caracas, where he hurriedly slipped past reporters to go inside, saying only: "I'm happy. Excuse me, but now I just want to see her."

Officers from a special anti-kidnapping unit on Friday rescued 54-year-old Maura Villarreal, who had been held by her abductors for more than five months, in a remote mountainous area in the southern state of Bolivar, said Joel Rengifo, the chief officer in the division.

"It was a clean and well-planned operation," said Rengifo, who added that Villarreal was unharmed and healthy except for mosquito bites and a bit of stomach sickness after days of drinking water from a nearby river.

The US major leaguer's mother, who had been missing since she was kidnapped from her home Sept. 1, told reporters the experience was "unexpected -- I never thought they would kidnap me."

"You can't say they treated me either well or poorly. The most hurtful thing was having to bear them saying that my son didn't love me because he didn't pay," Villarreal said.

Rengifo said the kidnappers had demanded US$6 million in ransom, but that the family didn't pay. He said the rescue operation began early Friday and lasted eight hours in an area near the Guaniamo River, some 550km southwest of Caracas.

"With 30 officers the commando operation was carried out," Rengifo said. "We had to take a boat to arrive on the river by surprise."

He said she was being held at an abandoned tourist camp called <<<<

Most of the kidnappers, upon seeing the police, were able to flee in heavy exchanges of gunfire, Rengifo said. One of the abductors was killed in the rescue operation.

Police also seized at least 1,300 pounds of cocaine at the camp, along with weapons and explosives.

Villarreal was kidnapped from the town of Ocumare del Tuy in the southeastern outskirts of Caracas, where her home stands out as the most expensive on the block, fringed with trees and adjacent to the family's construction supply business. Police say witnesses told them the men who came for Urbina's mother more than five months ago were wearing police uniforms.

Her abduction highlighted an apparent rise in kidnappings in Urbina's South American homeland. About three quarters of the world's kidnappings occur in Latin America, according to experts, with the bulk in Colombia, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil.

Venezuelan police say the number of reported kidnappings in the country rose from 51 in 1995 to 201 in 2002, the last year for which official figures were released. Between last January and August alone, there were 163 kidnappings reported in the country, according to the Venezuelan Program of Education and Action in Human Rights (PROVEA).

Urbina isn't the only US major leaguer to have been a victim of crime in Venezuela. Richard Hidalgo, a right fielder for the Texas Rangers, was shot in the left forearm during a 2002 carjacking attempt.

Nevertheless, many of the dozens of Venezuelan players in the US major leagues return to their homeland in the winter to play in the Venezuelan league and spend time with their families and friends -- regularly in the poor neighborhoods where they grew up.

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