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Richardson seeks Cuba release of jailed U.S. man

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is on a private trip to Cuba 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.

State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said U.S. officials were aware of the trip and had been in contact with Richardson, a veteran Democratic politician who has played diplomatic trouble-shooter for Democratic administrations.

"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 Gross' release.

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

"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.

Richardson's office in New Mexico confirmed that he was in Cuba but declined to provide further details.

Cuba's Supreme Court last month upheld a 15-year prison sentence for Gross, who the Cuban government says illegally took equipment into Cuba to spread Internet access under a U.S. program to subvert the Cuban constitutional order.

The Gross case has brought U.S.-Cuba relations to a standstill after a brief warming under President Barack Obama, who eased U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba and allowed a free flow of remittances to the island before Gross, 62, 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. He has been behind bars for 20 months and called for him to be immediately and unconditionally released.

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

Since then he has emerged as an informal U.S. interlocutor with both 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.

(Editing by Bill Trott)

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