Bill Richardson: Venezuela's Chavez willing to 're-engage' in negotiations to free US hostages

Eds: ADDS new quote by Richardson on Betancourt, background.

By RACHEL JONES

Associated Press Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is "ready to help re-engage in negotiations" for the release of three American hostages held captive by rebels in Colombia, a visiting U.S. governor said late Saturday.

Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that he plans to put forward a proposal for the release of the three U.S. defense contractors in the coming weeks and that Chavez is willing to work with him as a "primary mediator."

The governor met with Chavez at the presidential palace on Saturday night to discuss the issue. Chavez did not release any statements following the meeting.

Earlier Saturday, the president remarked that he did not know "if I'm going to be able to continue helping."

"I'm going to listen to him, to see how we could," Chavez said.

Richardson, who has experience in helping to get U.S. captives freed in other nations, told the AP he had a "very productive" meeting with Chavez, but he did not divulge any specifics on how they plan to move forward.

Prior to the meeting, the governor told reporters that he would discuss ways to advance a proposed swap of hostages for imprisoned guerrillas. He stressed that he was visiting Venezuela not as an official envoy but at the request of the hostages' families.

Richardson, who speaks Spanish, expressed satisfaction that both the Venezuelan president and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, with whom he met last month, have agreed to cooperate.

"I achieved the two things I came to do," he said. "First, Chavez has agreed to work with me as a primary mediator. But he won't be the only one, obviously. And second, he said he was ready to help re-engage in negotiations."

While Richardson emphasized that he is mainly working to secure the release of the U.S. hostages held since 2003, he also hopes to assist others, including French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, who is said to be depressed and ill.

"I'm concerned for (her) health," he said. "In a conflict like this it's easy to forget that human beings with families are suffering and sick and need to be taken out of there."

Earlier this month, France sent a mission backed by Spain and Switzerland to Colombia in the hopes of treating and possibly freeing Betancourt, who is said to be ailing. French President Nicolas Sarkozy withdrew the mission after the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said they wouldn't unilaterally release any more captives.

The FARC unilaterally freed six hostages to Chavez's socialist government this year.

But FARC leader Ivan Marquez said that last month's assassination of rebel commander Raul Reyes during a Colombian military raid on a rebel camp in Ecuador has shut down any possibility of continuing negotiations. Marquez's comments were posted Saturday on the Web site of the Argentine daily newspaper Perfil.

Marquez added, however, that Betancourt's mother "sees in Chavez the only hope, and she's right."

The raid provoked Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa to withdraw his ambassador from Colombia. Chavez did likewise, and briefly sent tanks to the Colombian border.

Correa said Saturday that his government will continue to consider the FARC as an "irregular force" but not terrorists. Correa also berated Uribe, saying he had "the air of a little dictator."

The Colombian government has said that it seized a computer belonging to Reyes in the raid and that it contained documents showing Chavez planned to provide US$300 million to Colombia's largest rebel group. Venezuela's Foreign Ministry replied that it would not recognize what it called "a collection of inconsistent and incomprehensible written documents."

Uribe rejects any role for Chavez in a prisoner swap, accepting as interlocutors only the Roman Catholic Church and three European nations -- France, Switzerland and Spain -- which for years have been involved in trying to broker an end to Colombia's decades-long civil conflict.

The FARC has proposed trading high-value hostages for imprisoned guerrillas, and has been long deadlocked with Colombia's U.S.-allied government over the terms. Just this month, the FARC added Jorge Enrique Rodriguez Mendieta, alias "Ivan Vargas," to the list of those they want released from prison. Rodriguez was captured in Colombia in 2004 and extradited last year to the U.S. on drug trafficking charges.

The three U.S. defense contractors -- Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell -- have been held by the FARC since their plane went down in rebel-held jungles in February 2003.

Richardson, a former U.S. presidential candidate and energy secretary, governor previously has negotiated the release of American hostages in North Korea, Iraq and Sudan.