Bill Richardson plans Venezuela trip on hostages

WASHINGTON Fri Apr 4, 2008 6:11pm EDT

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) (R) and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson laugh during a news conference following a campaign rally in Portland, Oregon, March 21, 2008. REUTERS/Richard Clement

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) (R) and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson laugh during a news conference following a campaign rally in Portland, Oregon, March 21, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Richard Clement

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Seasoned negotiator Bill Richardson plans to visit Venezuela next month to discuss the fate of three American hostages held by rebels in Colombia, said a U.S. official on Friday.

Richardson, the New Mexico governor, was in Colombia last week for talks with President Alvaro Uribe on the U.S. defense contractors held since 2003.

State Department official Tom Shannon, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, told Reuters he had spoken to Richardson, who planned to visit Venezuela next month to see if he could help secure the Americans' release.

"Governor Richardson is a skilled negotiator with a lot of experience in this field and I am sure he has a lot to offer in terms of understanding possible resolutions of the hostage situation," said Shannon in an interview with Reuters as part of a Latin American summit series.

Richardson, who was asked by the hostages' families to step in, was a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and has helped release Americans held in Sudan, Iraq, North Korea and Cuba.

Richardson's New Mexico office had no comment on the trip.

The three U.S. defense contractors being held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell. They were on an anti-narcotics mission in February 2003 when their aircraft crashed and they were captured by rebels.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been involved in getting hostages released by the FARC. This year the FARC, a Marxist guerrilla group that has waged a 4-decade-old war against the Colombian state, released six hostages through deals negotiated with Chavez.

"When you get involved in these negotiations, it's critically important to get to know the principals and gain their trust," Richardson said in a statement after his trip to Colombia. He said freeing the hostages won't happen quickly.

France has been trying to secure the release of French-Colombian national Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate, and others held by the FARC.

Shannon said the United States wanted all hostages freed.

"The French have always assured us that in all of their efforts to play this role that they also are looking to accomplish a much bigger accord in which all the hostages including the Americans would be included," he said.

Betancourt is believed to be ill and a French medical team is in Bogota hoping to get urgent help to her in the jungle.

Shannon said it would be terrible if Betancourt died in captivity and would underscore the "ruthless and cruel" nature of FARC's hostage-taking policy.

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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