Venezuela opposition figures in jail protest

Venezuelan security forces are seen at the entrance of the intelligence service's Helicoide center in Caracas after opposition figures took control of a part of it

Dozens of Venezuelan opposition prisoners have taken over part of a prison run by the feared intelligence services days ahead of elections, a rights group said Thursday.

The United States expressed "serious concerns" over the standoff with Venezuelan authorities after an American man among the prisoners, Joshua Holt, pleaded for help in a video sent via Twitter.

About 54 opposition prisoners have been taking part in the protest since Wednesday at the Sebin intelligence service's Helicoide center in Caracas, prisoners rights group Foro Penal said.

"We continue to have serious concerns about the safety and welfare of US citizens who are being held there," said US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, citing Holt's video.

"I'm calling on the people of America. I need your help to get me out of this place," said Holt, who was detained in 2016.

Holt was arrested by Sebin and accused of possessing weapons and plotting to destabilize the government of President Nicolas Maduro. Top officials in the socialist government have labelled him a US spy.

The US head of mission in Caracas, Todd Robinson, went to the foreign ministry late Wednesday "and made repeated requests to the highest levels of Venezuelan government for information about the situation at that prison," Nauert said.

Venezuelan authorities refused to meet with him, she said.

On his Twitter account, Daniel Ceballos, a former opposition mayor of the city of San Cristobal, published a photo of a group of prisoners, including Holt, gathered inside the center.

The prisoners are demanding the immediate release of 20 inmates who have been ordered free on bail, speedier court processes and medical care.

- Situation calm -

Venezuela's state prosecutor Tarek William Saab played down the situation inside the prison, saying it was calm and that the men were in their cells.

Saab told CNN's Spanish-language service that negotiations were underway between his office, the ministry for penitentiary affairs and Sebin "to evaluate the cases that may have experienced a procedural delay."

Relatives have gathered outside the jail waiting for news.

"The protest is peaceful. They do not have weapons," said Jorge Fernandez, father of one of the prisoners detained since 2016. "What we demand is that justice be done."

Ceballos' wife Patricia accused Saab of lying about the situation being calm inside the center.

"The situation is the same. The only information that we have is unofficial, from audios that come from inside. We know that the internal protest is being maintained but we have no information about the detained," said Alfredo Romero, head of Foro Penal.

The incidents come ahead of Sunday's presidential election in which socialist incumbent Maduro, who has been accused of using the Sebin to crack down on opponents, is seeking a second six-year term in the crisis-hit nation whose economy is crippled.

Security forces are seen at the entrance of El Helicoide, the headquarters of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), in Caracas, on May 17, 2018, where Venezuelan opponents and a US citizen are protesting their detention