Venezuelan Police Free Major Leaguer Wilson Ramos
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 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.
Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami announced on Friday night that Ramos was "safe and sound" after the rescue. He didn't say whether anyone had been wounded in the gunfire.
Five men were arrested in the kidnapping, including a Colombian "linked to paramilitary groups and to kidnapping groups," El Aissami said.
"I don't know who those people were. I know they're Colombians by their accent," Ramos said. "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 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.
"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.
"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 door with relatives on Wednesday when he was abducted in his working-class neighborhood in Valencia, about 90 miles (150 kilometers) 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.
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 organized 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."