U.S. News

Gov. Richardson meets Chavez over hostages

CARACAS (Reuters) - The governor of New Mexico met on Saturday with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in an effort to restart talks with neighboring Colombia to secure the release of hostages held by leftist rebels.

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Chavez this year helped free six hostages held for years by the Marxist FARC rebels in Colombia’s four-decade old civil war, but talks have sputtered amid continued bickering between Chavez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

“I’ve had a good meeting with President Chavez ... (he) has told me that he is willing to help in this situation,” Gov. Bill Richardson told reporters after the meeting.

“Many times in a conflict like this we forget the human side, that human beings are being held hostage.”

High-profile hostages held by the FARC include French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. anti-drugs contractors kidnapped after their helicopter crashed in the jungle in 2003.

Richardson, who was a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and has helped release Americans held in Sudan, Iraq, North Korea and Cuba, was asked by the hostages’ families to help seek their release. His mother is Mexican and he speaks fluent Spanish.

The leftist Chavez and right-wing Uribe have exchanged bitter accusations throughout the year, even during the hostage release negotiations.

Uribe accuses the self-styled socialist of supporting the FARC rebels, while Chavez says the Colombian leader of advancing Washington’s agenda in the increasingly anti-U.S. Latin American region.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner is scheduled to visit Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela next week to try to restart stalled talks over the release of hostages, including Betancourt, believed to be severely ill after years of jungle captivity.

Chavez earlier in the day expressed doubts about whether he could continue to be useful in the talks.

“I do not know if I can continue helping on this issue, because in order to help, the parties (involved) in the problem must want or accept true help,” Chavez said in televised comments on Saturday morning.

Reporting by Brian Ellsworth, editing by Sandra Maler