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Commando raid frees baseball star from kidnappers

Gun battle liberates Major League player, days after he is abducted from his Venezuelan home

The American Major League baseball star Wilson Ramos, kidnapped four days ago in Venezuela, was freed yesterday amid heavy gunfire when police commandos swooped on the remote mountain hideaway where he was being held. He was liberated unharmed, and five of his captors were arrested.

Ramos said the final moments had been hair-raising as police and the kidnappers exchanged heavy fire. "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, 90 miles west of Caracas, early yesterday. He thanked the police and National Guard commandos who rescued him, saying "the boys did a great job".

The Washington Nationals catcher had not been seen or heard from since he was seized at gunpoint outside his home on Wednesday night in the working-class neighbourhood in Valencia. He had had been talking outside his front door with relatives when he was bundled into a vehicle.

"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 [sports utility vehicle] and from there they took me into the mountains," in the centre of the state of Carabobo.

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," 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."

Authorities tracked down the abductors after initially locating their stolen vehicle, abandoned in a nearby town on Thursday.

Ramos's abduction precipitated an outpouring of candlelit vigils and public prayers at stadiums as well as outside his home. Ramos had only recently returned to his homeland after his first year with the Nationals and planned to play during the off-season 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."

After undergoing medical checks at a police station, Ramos was reunited with his family. Five men were arrested for the kidnapping, including a Colombian who the police said was "linked to paramilitary and kidnapping groups".

Security has increasingly become a concern for Venezuelan players and their families as the number of kidnappings has soared in recent years. Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America, and the vast majority of crimes go unsolved. Bodyguards routinely shadow Major League players when they return from the United States to their homeland to play in Venezuela's baseball league.