Bank robbers take hostages in Venezuela

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

On Monday, four men entered a branch of Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria in Altagracia de Orituco, Venezuela, a small city south-east of the capital Caracas. Allegedly, the bank heist did not go as planned, and the men became trapped in the bank with police outside. In the resulting standoff, approximately 30 employees and customers were taken hostage.

Today, after the standoff has lasted more than 24 hours, with a helicopter hovering above, the bank is surrounded by hundreds of heavily armed police, television crews, and the victims relatives. The gunmen released a few hostages on Monday evening and two employees escaped, including a security guard who ran from the building as the gunmen fired shots at him.

We are in real danger. They can kill us. Please help.

—Unknown hostage

The hostages, which are said to include a pregnant woman and small children, occasionally appear in the windows of the bank, ostensibly to show relatives that they are still alive. One hostage displayed a placard in of the windows. It read, "We are in real danger. They can kill us. Please help."

The hostage takers are demanding an ambulance in which they wish to be allowed to drive away with their stolen goods and a handful of hostages. Negotiators said they had turned down an offer to let them surrender in front of live cameras with guarantees that police would not fire a shot.

Police cut off running water to the bank, but have made deliveries of food, drinking water, and diapers. Some hostages have sent text messages to relatives and one even managed to place a phone call to regional radio station.

Speaking on Unión Radio, local security official Manuel Granadillo said, "They appear to be new at this. They could do something crazy and then anything could happen."

State-run media has largely ignored the standoff, while other outlets have been giving frequent and detailed reports. Crime is a growing political issue in Venezuela. Opinion polls have indicated that it is the number one concern of the population.