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Police commandos rescue Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos, ending 2-day kidnap ordeal
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) ' The kidnapping ordeal of Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos ended after two days when Venezuelan police commandos swooped in to rescue him in a remote mountainous area and arrested three alleged abductors.
Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said on state television Friday night that Ramos was "safe and sound" and that he was rescued by police and the National Guard.
Ramos had not been seen or heard from since he was seized at gunpoint outside his home Wednesday night and whisked away in an SUV. It was the first known kidnapping of a Major League Baseball player in Venezuela, and the abduction set off an outpouring of candlelight vigils and public prayers at stadiums as well as outside Ramos' home.
Information Minister Andres Izarra said on Twitter that Ramos was "found alive by security forces in mountainous zone," in the area of Montalban in central Carabobo state. Izarra said it was "a rescue operation by air," which was authorized earlier in the day by President Hugo Chavez.
"Ramos free!" Izarra said in one message on his account.
Three men were arrested in the kidnapping, including a Colombian "linked to paramilitary groups and to kidnapping groups," El Aissami said.
He gave few details of the rescue but said police were taking Ramos to his hometown of Valencia, about 90 miles (150 kilometers) west of Caracas. He said Ramos would first undergo medical checks at the police station and then be reunited with his family.
Ramos' mother Maria Campos de Ramos celebrated, exclaiming on television: "Thanks to God!"
"Thanks to my country, to my neighbors and to my family, who were supporting us," she said. Shortly afterward, she spoke with her son by phone and said jubilantly: "He's fine."
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo hailed the news.
"Though details are limited and we have not yet talked directly with Wilson, we are thrilled with reports that he has been rescued," Rizzo said in a statement. "We greatly appreciate all the prayers and thoughts of all who have joined us in wishing for this conclusion to what has been a nightmarish 48 hours. We are eager to see Wilson and let him know just how many all over the world have been waiting for this news."
Ramos had recently returned to his homeland after his rookie year with the Nationals to play during the offseason in the Venezuelan league.
Armed men seized Ramos outside his home in a working-class neighborhood in Valencia. Authorities said Thursday that they had found the kidnappers' stolen SUV abandoned in a nearby town.
El Aissami said Friday night that while three were arrested in the kidnapping, police were still searching for evidence in the mountainous area "to see if we can find others who were responsible."
Security has increasingly become a concern for Venezuelan players and their families as a wave of kidnappings has hit the wealthy as well as the middle class. Relatives of several Venezuelan major leaguers have previously been kidnapped for ransom, and in two cases have been killed.
Bodyguards typically shadow major leaguers when they return to their homeland to play in Venezuela's baseball league.
Some kidnappings in Venezuela have previously been carried out by highly organized criminal groups that demand ransom. In Ramos' case, however, there were no reports of the abductors demanding money.
Polls consistently say rampant crime is the top worry of Venezuelans. The country has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America, and the vast majority of crimes go unsolved. The number of kidnappings has soared in recent years.
Major League Baseball officials said it was the first kidnapping of a major leaguer that they could recall.
Izarra praised the authorities' handling of the rescue, saying on Twitter that the police "hit a tremendous home run."
Associated Press writer Christopher Toothaker in Caracas and AP Sports writers Howard Fendrich in Washington and Ron Blum in New York contributed to this report.