by Jaime Lopez*
Four heavily armed bank robbers freed six hostages and surrendered on Tuesday when police intercepted an ambulance they tried to flee in, ending a tense 29-hour standoff.
Guarico state Governor Eduardo Manuitt confirmed to VTV television that the robbers, who had used both drugs and alcohol, were caught on the road east of Caracas.
"We blocked the road and they threw their weapons down to come out," Manuitt said.
Officials said all the money taken from the bank was recovered as well, but gave not figures.
VTV television said they were nabbed at 5:40 pm (2210 GMT), a few hours after they left the bank in Altagracia de Orituco with the six hostages in the ambulance provided in a deal negotiated with officials.
The deal involved officials holding the mother, aunt and mother-in-law of the robbers' leader in order to guarantee the safety of the hostages they took in the ambulance.
"We have the family members of the criminals in our hands, as our guarantee. We are not going to harm them, to protect the hostages. We hope that they keep the deal," Manuitt had said.
Their capture brought an end to the episode which began on Monday when the four men in their 20s, armed with rifles and grenades, tried to rob a branch of Banco Provincial, a local subsidiary of Spain's BBVA banking group, in Altagracia de Orituco in Guarico state, 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of Caracas.
The robbery went wrong when a police patrol happened on the site just as the heist got underway, prompting the robbers to seize some 30 customers and bank employees inside.
The hostages included three children, a mother and her infant, and a woman eight months pregnant.
During the siege they set free two elderly people, the pregnant woman and early Tuesday a bank employee needing medical attention.
One of the hostages, Carlos Gil, said things got tense inside the bank when the robbers shot at a bank guard.
Gil added that the hostages inside the bank were given little food to eat.
"They decided they would not worry about us, that a little morsel was enough," Gil said.
Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin said the critical moment was when one of the robbers was infuriated at seeing his mother together with the minister just outside the bank, and fired his gun.
As the drama wound on, hostages put up signs in the windows of the bank: "Bring an ambulance please," and "We are hungy, we are humans."
Local security officials sought to negotiate the hostages' release, and one of the robbers told Radio Caracol that they would not set the children inside the bank free unless they could get the getaway ambulance.
"We do not want any loot at this point. The only thing we want is to save our lives," the man said.
"If we let the kids go, they will kill us," he said, threatening to detonate grenades if police stormed the bank.
Authorities then negotiated to let the men drive off in an ambulance with a handful of hostages.
"A deal was made, we opened the road, we have let them leave," Manuitt said after they left the bank.
"The most important thing is the lives of the hostages and that is what we have achieved," he said.
Officials followed the ambulance by electronic methods and helicopters before it was finally stopped.
Thirteen people were killed, and dozens remain missing, after an overloaded barge sank in central Africa's Lake Tanganyika, the maritime inspection service said yesterday.
The disaster happened last Friday about five kilometres (three miles) from Kalemie port, on the Democratic Republic of Congo side of the lake that is also shared by Tanzania, Burundi and Zambia.
"Thirteen bodies have been recovered, including nine children," a maritime inspector in Kalemie, Mbutu Nasibu, said, adding that it was believed that more than 100 people had been on board the vessel.
Another port official at Kalemie, Xavier Kasimbo, said that 17 people had been rescued by fishermen shortly after the barge went down.
Officials earlier Wednesday said the disaster occurred overnight Monday, but Sadiki Kandolo, a judicial police officer at the port, confirmed — as did other local sources — that it occurred on Friday.
"It was by mistake that some elements in the marine services spoke of Monday," Kandolo said.
Lying in the Great Rift Valley, finger-shaped Lake Tanganyika is one of the largest lakes in Africa, with large populations of hippopotamuses and crocodiles.
"There were 58 passengers on the manifest, but we know there were a lot of unlisted passengers as well. The operators always take as many as possible," said Kasimbo.
"We'll never know for sure exactly how many people were on board," he added.
The search for survivors resumed on Wednesday.
The barge operated a regular ferry service between Kalemie and Moba, situated some 150 kilometers (95 miles) to the south on the banks of Lake Tanganyika which serves as a natural border between DR Congo and Tanzania.
An initial inquiry suggested that the ferry operator had decided on an unscheduled stop at the town of Kibanga, rather than taking the normal direct route to Moba.
"It was night-time and the barge hit a rock and broke in two," said Nasibu. "A lot of people drowned, but some were rescued by fisherman who heard the cries for help.
A number of those rescued ran off as soon as they made it back to shore, apparently unwilling to be interviewed by police.
The bodies recovered so far have been taken back to Kalemie to be identified by relatives. The remains of the vessel of the vessel have also been salvaged for inspection.
As well as carrying too many passengers, the barge was also believed to be heavily overloaded with various goods.
"It's always like that," said one maritime inspector. "A boat only leaves when it's completely full — when there's no space for even one more passenger, or one more container."
Ferry disasters are relatively common on the waterways of the DR Congo, with overloading the most common cause of accidents.
Lake Tanganyika is estimated to be the second largest freshwater lake in the world by volume, and the second deepest.