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Richardson seeks release of jailed American in Cuba

HAVANA (Reuters) - Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson arrived in Cuba on Wednesday on a private trip to seek the release of American aid contractor Alan Gross, whose jailing on charges of trying to set up Internet networks has frozen U.S.-Cuba ties.

The former New Mexico governor and occasional diplomatic trouble-shooter for Democratic administrations refused to comment when encountered by reporters at Havana's Hotel Nacional.

"I have nothing to say, I have no comment. It's a beautiful day though, isn't it?" said the casually dressed Richardson.

Gross, 62, is in a Cuban prison serving a 15-year sentence handed down earlier this year and upheld last month by the communist island's highest court.

Cuba Parliament President Ricardo Alarcon, speaking to reporters at a separate event, appeared to throw water on the idea that Gross might be released.

"This is a country of laws and the sentence of the court has to be fulfilled," he said. "It's a shame that Gross has been victim of a policy in which he himself said they had treated him like a fool."

State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said U.S. officials were aware of the trip and had been in contact with Richardson.

"While Governor Richardson is traveling as a private citizen, we certainly support his efforts to obtain Alan Gross's release," Nuland said in a statement.

Richardson made a trip to Havana in August 2010 during which he also raised the Gross case but appeared at that time to win no concessions on his release.

Gross' family, in a statement issued through his Washington-based lawyer, Peter Kahn, said Cuba had invited Richardson to visit again.

DIALOGUE WELCOME

"We are pleased that the Cuban government invited Governor Richardson to Havana. We welcome any and all dialogue that ultimately will result in Alan's release," the statement said.

The Cuban government says Gross illegally brought equipment into Cuba to spread Internet access under a U.S. program to subvert the Cuban constitutional order.

The case has brought U.S.-Cuba relations to a standstill after a brief warming under President Barack Obama, who eased U.S. travel restrictions and allowed a free flow of remittances to the island before Gross was arrested in December 2009.

The Obama administration has said there would be no more improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations as long as Cuba keeps Gross imprisoned.

Gross' defense has argued that he intended no harm toward Cuba and was only trying to provide more Internet access to the island's small Jewish community.

Gross was working for a U.S. Agency for International Development program that Cuba views as part of long-standing U.S. efforts to destabilize the island's government.

Richardson, who was energy secretary and Washington's ambassador to the United Nations during President Bill Clinton's administration, was a candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 2008 U.S. presidential election but dropped out of the race early.

Since then he has emerged as an informal U.S. interlocutor with Cuba and North Korea, which he visited in December 2010 in an effort to ease tensions with Pyongyang over its nuclear program and belligerence toward South Korea.

(Reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by Jeff Franks and Christopher Wilson)

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