Gov. Bill Richardson Travels to Colombia for Hostage Negotiations

Gov. Bill Richardson said three American hostages being held by rebel forces in Colombia appear to be in deteriorating health.

Richardson, who has been a freelance diplomatic troubleshooter on several occasions, returned Friday from Bogota where he met with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and others to evaluate the chances that the men would be released.

"When you get involved in these negotiations, it's critically important to get to know the principals and gain their trust," Richardson said. "While I believe this initial trip was successful, the process of freeing the hostages won't happen quickly."

Three U.S. defense contractors — Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell — have been held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, for five years. They were captured when their plane went down in rebel-held jungles in February 2003.

The rebels want to exchange the U.S. hostages for members of their group who are jailed by the Colombian government.

The families of the hostages had requested Richardson's help, and the governor coordinated the trip with the U.S. Department of State and the Colombian government. His trip was paid for in part by the Santa Fe Council on International Relations, said Allan Oliver, a spokesman for Richardson.

Richardson, who is in his second term, is a former congressman and U.S. energy secretary. He ended his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination last month.

In 2006, he persuaded Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to free Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Paul Salopek. A decade earlier, he helped get three Red Cross workers released from Marxist rebels in Sudan.

He also has traveled to Iraq, North Korea and Cuba to gain the release of Americans held prisoner.