Venezuela names US fugitive to team negotiating with foes

FILE - In this Sept 9, 2021 file photo, pedestrians walk near a poster asking for the freedom of Colombian businessman and Venezuelan special envoy Alex Saab, in Caracas, Venezuela. The Venezuelan government added Saab on Tuesday, September 14, 2021, to the negotiation team that is meeting with the opposition in Mexico. Saab has was detained in Cabo Verde a year ago and is facing extradition to the US for money laundering. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)
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MIAMI (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is seeking to add to a new member to his team negotiating in Mexico with his political opponents — an ally jailed in Cape Verde awaiting extradition to the U.S. on money laundering charges.

Alex Saab will be incorporated into the government delegation immediately, National Assembly President Jorge Rodriguez, who heads Venezuela's team, announced Tuesday on Venezuela's state television.

Saab's appointment is unlikely to have any immediate impact on his legal troubles. A week ago, Cape Verde's Constitutional Court voted unanimously to reject his appeal of an earlier court ruling approving his extradition to face federal charges in Miami.

But the Maduro government's decision to redouble its embrace of the fugitive is likely to hang over dialogue efforts that already faced huge obstacles after years of bitter street fighting in Venezuela.

Venezuela's opposition compared the gambit to a failed attempt by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to name a rebel leader jailed in the U.S. to its delegation that negotiated a landmark peace deal in 2016 to end that country's half century armed conflict.

"We're not going to get distracted from our central agenda," the opposition delegation said in a statement. “We Venezuelans need an integral accord that restores democracy and the opportunity to emerge from this immense social, economic and political crisis.”

Saab, a businessman originally from Colombia, was arrested in June 2020 when his private jet made a refueling stop in Cape Verde en route to Iran on what the Venezuelan government has described as a humanitarian mission.

U.S. officials believe he holds numerous secrets about how Maduro, the president’s family and his top aides allegedly siphoned off millions of dollars in government contracts amid widespread hunger in oil-rich Venezuela.

Maduro's government has protested his arrest as illegal, claiming Saab was a diplomatic envoy and therefore possesses immunity from prosecution while on an official mission.

The talks that began a month ago in Mexico are aimed at resolving the South American country’s longstanding political dispute. The sessions are being sponsored by Norway, with Russia and the Netherlands playing a supporting role.

As part of the dialogue effort, the opposition — which with U.S. backing refuses to recognize the legitimacy of Maduro's administration — has agreed to participate in regional elections scheduled for later this year.

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