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U.S.: Washington Shifts Official Policy On Dealing With Kidnappings

Responding to the growing risk of United States citizens being kidnapped worldwide, Washington has announced a change in its policy on hostage-taking. State Department spokespeople say the changes will ensure the U.S. government treats every kidnapping case as a matter of urgency, regardless of whether it involves officials or private citizens, such as "The Wall Street Journal" reporter Daniel Pearl, whose death was confirmed on 21 February.

Washington, 22 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has shifted its reaction policy on kidnappings, vowing to do all it can -- including using military force -- to free not only U.S. officials but also private American citizens being held hostage.

The policy shift, announced on 20 February by the State Department, came amid several U.S. hostage cases -- most notably that of reporter Pearl, who yesterday was confirmed dead after being kidnapped on 23 January in Pakistan. The death of the 38-year-old journalist, who was believed to have been abducted by Pakistani extremists, was announced by U.S. State Department officials after a video was released showing incontrovertible evidence that Pearl had been slain.

U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking in Beijing in the midst of a week-long Asian tour, condemned Pearl's murder: "Those who would engage in criminal, barbaric acts need to know that these crimes only hurt their cause and only deepen the resolve of the United States of America to rid the world of these agents of terror."

In a separate kidnapping case, a U.S. couple is being held by Islamic guerrillas in the Philippines.

The new U.S. policy, which updates a 1995 version, continues to state that the government will make no concessions to kidnappers, in order to avoid reinforcing their behavior. But it does appear to offer more flexibility in responding to kidnappings -- including possible military action and ransom payments from private parties.

President Bush has approved the changes, which came after a lengthy review involving all key government departments -- including the Central Intelligence Agency -- despite what U.S. newspapers called reservations by the Pentagon that the new policy could further obligate the U.S. military abroad.

In the past, the U.S. government has responded in a variety of ways to the abduction of American officials around the world -- including using military action, as in the botched effort to free U.S. Embassy personnel taken hostage during Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979.

But at a press briefing on 20 February, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the policy will not favor any one possible response -- such as military action -- over another. Boucher insisted the policy will ensure the government will "make every effort" to solve all American hostage cases, regardless of whether officials or private citizens are involved.

"The effort is to emphasize in this policy not just that we won't make concessions, we won't make deals, we won't provide the benefits of any deals to hostage-takers, but to emphasize that the United States government will look at every hostage situation, will look at every kidnapping of an American carefully, and that we will try to react with every appropriate resource to get the American back," Boucher said.

The spokesman says kidnappings are of concern to the U.S. for humanitarian reasons, but also because they have an impact on foreign relations and encourage further abductions if they go unpunished.

But asked about the likelihood that future kidnapping cases will result in military action, Boucher said: "I don't want to imply in any way that military action is in any way a first or preferred way, but I think the commitment that's made here in terms of the United States government looking at every case -- looking at what we can do, looking at what appropriate means we have to deal with it -- can involve, yes, any means that we have available."

Some analysts, however, worry about using military action in hostage situations. Charles Pena is a defense analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. Pena suspects the new policy, while officially unrelated to the abductions in the Philippines and Pakistan, was announced as a way of introducing the notion that military action might be used to free current hostages. But, he said, such a strategy is flawed.

"I personally think that that's a bad change in policy, because I think that U.S. citizens who travel abroad need to be aware of where they're going and the risks involved, and they have to be willing to accept those risks, and that the United States government is ultimately not responsible for protecting those people who travel into potentially and known hostile areas," Pena said.

A subtle shift in the wording of the new kidnapping policy indicates that the U.S. may also be open to some forms of ransom. While the previous policy stated flatly the U.S. "will not pay ransom," it now says the government will "deny hostage-takers the benefits of ransom."

The change appears academic, but a report in "The New York Times" suggests there's more to it. The report says one factor behind the shift was the case of four American oil workers kidnapped in Ecuador in 2000. After one worker was killed, U.S. firms agreed to pay $13 million as ransom.

The report says the U.S. was later able to use the ransom money to track down the kidnappers and bring them to justice.

While the new policy urges private firms not to pay ransom and to work closely with American officials, U.S. officials say they will remain flexible in a case-by-case approach. That may mean officials will opt to turn a blind eye to private ransom payments -- but only if, as in the Ecuador case, it is likely that such a concession might later help bring the abductors to justice.