CARACAS • The Venezuelan government has freed its fiercest political rival in a surprise move, allowing opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez to return home under house arrest after nearly 3-1/2 years behind bars.
The Venezuelan authorities called the decision a humanitarian gesture, citing Mr Lopez's allegedly poor health, but his supporters celebrated his release as a capitulation by the embattled government.
Concerns about Mr Lopez's well-being were calmed when he briefly appeared before cheering crowds outside his family home, waving a Venezuelan flag and thrusting a defiant fist skyward.
He did not address the crowd, and the conditions of his transfer from prison to house arrest were not immediately known.
Mr Lopez, Venezuela's most prominent political prisoner, was arrested in early 2014 and handed a 13-year jail term. He was a symbol of resistance for anti-government protesters who chant "Free Leopoldo!" with his portrait printed in bright colours on their T-shirts and flags.
Mr Lopez, 46, was escorted out of prison at about 3am last Saturday, and the news was applauded by governments across the hemisphere, which called on the Venezuelan authorities to release others held for politically related charges.
For Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the move to free Mr Lopez presents a significant political risk. The charismatic former Caracas mayor ranks in polls as the country's most popular politician, and in a statement from Mr Lopez read by fellow opposition leaders last Saturday, he said he was not afraid to return to jail.
"If continuing my fight for freedom means going back to (prison) I am ready to do it," Mr Lopez's statement read. "I reiterate to you my commitment to fight for freedom."
His supporters were quick to point out that while the conditions of his confinement had changed, his conviction - on charges of inciting violence during 2014 protests - had not been lifted. His ability to lead the new protest movement against Mr Maduro could be limited by the terms of his house arrest.
His father Leopoldo Lopez Gil told reporters that the authorities placed an electronic monitoring bracelet on his son, "but outside of that we don't know of any other limitation", he said, speaking from exile in Spain.
"What happens now depends very much on what Leopoldo is allowed to do and whether he will have the freedom to exercise leadership of the opposition," said Caracas political analyst Carlos Romero.
Many said they were puzzled by the government's sudden decision to release him, but a statement by Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez crediting international mediators appeared to offer insight into Mr Maduro's thinking.
"Today the country woke up to a gesture that was the result of dialogue," the minister said, praising mediators led by former Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
Yet years of failed attempts at mediation have convinced many government opponents that such calls are hollow and cynical attempts to buy more time. They called Mr Maduro's decision the result of growing domestic and international pressure on the cash-strapped government to return to democratic norms.
WATCH VIDEO ONLINE: Leopoldo Lopez leaves jail str.sg/lopezout