Valencia: The kidnapping ordeal of Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos ended after two days when Venezuelan police commandos swooped in to rescue him in a flurry of gunfire and arrested five alleged abductors.
Ramos said he was happy and thankful to be alive, and that the final moments had been hair-raising as police and the kidnappers exchanged heavy fire in the remote mountainous area where he was being held.
"The truth is I`m still very nervous, but thanks to God everything turned out well," Ramos told Venezuelan state television, speaking by telephone after arriving at a police station in his hometown of Valencia early Saturday.
He thanked the police and National Guard commandos who rescued him, saying "the boys did a great job”.
Ramos, 24, had not been seen or heard from since he was seized at gunpoint outside his home in the city of Valencia on 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.
With Ramos at his side at a police station in Valencia, Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said on Saturday during a news conference that authorities had arrested four of the captors, all of them Venezuelan men in their 20s. A 60-year-old woman and 74-year-old man were also arrested for supplying the kidnappers with food from their home in the area, he said.
Authorities are still searching for four Colombian men who escaped during the rescue, said El Aissami.
On Friday, he didn`t say whether anyone had been wounded in the gunfire.
"I don`t know who those people were. I know they`re Colombians by their accent," Ramos said earlier Saturday. "Three guys grabbed me there in front of my house, they took me to another SUV and from there they took me into the mountains," in central Carabobo state.
He said his abductors spoke little to him. "They simply told me to cooperate, that they were going to ask for a ton of cash for me."
"They put me in a room with a bed. I was lying there," he said. "It was hard for me to think about, if I was going to get out alive first of all ... about how my family, my mother were."
Ramos was to first undergo medical checks at the police station and then be reunited with his family, El Aissami said.
Ramos` mother Maria Campos de Ramos celebrated, exclaiming on television: "Thanks to God!"
"Thanks to my country, to my neighbours 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.
"I am happy to announce that I have spoken directly with Wilson and he assures me he is unharmed but eager to be reunited with his family," Rizzo said in a statement. "He asked me to thank all who played a role in his rescue, and all those who kept him and his family in their thoughts and prayers. I join Wilson in thanking the many law enforcement officials in Venezuela and investigators with Major League Baseball who worked tirelessly to ensure a positive ending to what has been a frightening ordeal."
Ramos had recently returned to his homeland after his rookie year with the Nationals to play during the offseason in the Venezuelan league.
"As soon as I feel all right, I`m going to start playing," Ramos said.
"They didn`t physically harm me, but psychologically I underwent very great harm," he said.
Ramos had been just outside his house`s front door with relatives on Wednesday when he was abducted in his working-class neighbourhood in Valencia, about 90 miles (150 kilometres) west of Caracas. Authorities tracked down the abductors after initially locating their stolen SUV abandoned in a nearby town on Thursday.
"I was always praying to God, and thanks to God he gave me the miracle of sending me these wonderful people," Ramos said. "I`m alive thanks to them."
President Hugo Chavez had authorized the "rescue operation by air" that freed Ramos, Information Minister Andres Izarra said on his Twitter account. El Aissami said on Saturday that Chavez had followed the operation "minute by minute”.
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.
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. But relatives of several players have previously been kidnapped for ransom in Venezuela, and in two cases have been killed.
Some kidnappings in Venezuela have previously been carried out by highly organised criminal groups that demand ransom.
Bodyguards typically shadow major leaguers when they return to their homeland to play in Venezuela`s baseball league.
Izarra praised the authorities` handling of the rescue, saying that the police "hit a tremendous home run”.