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

Eds: ADDS new Richardson quote. ADDS background on French government effort to aid Betancourt.


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

Earlier Saturday, Chavez 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," he 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.

"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."

Recent attempts to free the hostages -- most notably that of the French government to aid French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt -- have failed.

The leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, unilaterally freed six hostages to Chavez's socialist government this year.

But FARC leader Ivan Marquez, in an interview posted Saturday on the Web site of the Argentine daily newspaper Perfil, said that last month's assassination of rebel commander Raul Reyes by the Colombian army has shut down any possibility of continuing negotiations.

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

Richardson, a former U.S. presidential candidate and energy secretary, said he was visiting Venezuela not as an official envoy but at the request of the hostages' families.

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.

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.

Dampening the prospects is the FARC's anger over the Colombian military raid on a rebel camp in Ecuador last month that killed Reyes.

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."

Colombian President Alvaro 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.

Earlier this month, France sent a mission backed by Spain and Switzerland to Colombia in the hopes of being able to treat and possibly free Betancourt, who is said to be ailing. French President Nicolas Sarkozy withdrew the mission after Colombian rebels said they wouldn't unilaterally release any more captives.

Richardson, who also served as U.N. ambassador under former President Bill Clinton, met with Uribe last month in Colombia. He has previously negotiated the release of American hostages in North Korea, Iraq and Sudan.