Venezuela may negotiate for U.S. hostages

President Hugo Chavez says he is willing to talk with Colombia's rebel FARC for the release of three US defense contractors.

President Hugo Chávez said he will try to facilitate the release of three Americans held captive by Colombia's largest rebel group – even though he has lost contact with the guerrillas.

Mr. Chávez confirmed his willingness to help on Sunday, a day after New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said the socialist leader had agreed to mediate a possible exchange of the US defense contractors for imprisoned guerrillas.

"I told him that we're at their service, to try to help even though the issue is very complicated," said Chávez during his weekly television and radio program.

Chávez helped pave the way for the release of six captives earlier this year. But on Sunday, he reiterated previous claims that his government has lost contact with leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Prior to his meeting with Mr. Richardson at the presidential palace on Saturday, Chávez remarked that he did not know if he was "going to be able to continue helping."

Richardson said that he plans to put forward a proposal for the release of Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes, and Keith Stansell in the coming weeks, but he did not divulge any specifics on how they plan to move forward.

"This is a very difficult negotiation because you're dealing with a rebel group that's out in the jungle," Richardson said at a news conference Sunday. "You don't know where they are. You don't know what they want."

The Democratic governor, who has helped facilitate the release of US hostages in North Korea, Iraq, and Sudan, traveled to Venezuela on behalf of the hostages' families – not as an official US envoy. Both Chávez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe have agreed to cooperate, he said.

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 closed any possibility of new negotiations. Mr. Marquez's comments were posted Saturday on the website of the Argentine daily newspaper Perfil.

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