U.S. praises Uribe in hostage release

The State Department praised Colombian President Alvaro Uribe for the release of two hostages by a guerrilla group Friday Thursday, but barely acknowledged the role of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, released former vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas and former senator Consuelo González, who were quickly taken to Venezuela.

"First of all, the important thing is we welcome the release of these two hostages," said State Department spokesman Tom Casey when asked if the gesture would augur well for three U.S. hostages and increase Chávez's star power in Latin America. "They should have never been taken hostage in the first place."

Casey said all hostages should be released -- Colombian and American -- before adding, ‘‘we are also appreciative for the leadership of President Uribe in terms of trying to secure the release of these hostages."

In an apparent reference to Chávez, he added: "We welcome the good offices of any individuals who can help secure that in cooperation with the Colombian government."

Chávez is a fierce critic of U.S. policies and Uribe one of the Bush administration's closes allies in Latin America.

The questioner insisted if the good offices included Chávez.

"I think that anybody, including President Chávez, including anybody who has a role to play that is positive and that supports President Uribe and the Colombian Government's efforts, is to be welcomed," Casey responded. He mentioned Chávez only once, and Uribe six times.

Pentagon contractors Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes have been held by FARC guerrillas since 2003. An earlier mediation attempt by Chávez was called off by Uribe, chilling relations between the two neighbors.

Asked if the State Department would request that Chávez facilitate the release of the U.S. hostages, Casey said the Colombian government was "ultimately responsible for managing whatever process is involved here. So certainly, we are going to continue to work with them."

After reporters lobbed three more questions on whether the U.S. government would ask Chávez to help, Casey added, "This is not a U.S. issue. . . . "This is a Colombian issue."