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U.S. may pay ransom for hostages under new policy

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a major policy reversal on international hostage-taking, Bush administration officials said Wednesday that the United States might sometimes pay ransom to kidnappers.

However, the officials also stressed that the government would be aggressive in recovering the money once a hostage was safely released.

The message, one senior U.S. official said, is that "we're going to get you. We're not going to walk away."

The amended policy -- which President Bush signed last week -- was announced Wednesday.

The United States will become more actively involved whenever any American is taken hostage -- not just when a government employee is abducted or in high-profile cases such as the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, officials said.

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Pearl's kidnappers had made a series of demands in exchange for his release, including that the United States free Pakistani detainees in the Afghan war. But U.S. and Pakistani officials said Thursday that they had received a videotape containing "indisputable" evidence that Pearl had been slain by his kidnappers.

U.S. officials said the change in the government kidnapping policy -- which was announced before word came of Pearl's death -- came from an interagency review dating back to the Clinton administration and was not related to Pearl's kidnapping.

The officials point to the October 2000 kidnapping of four American oil workers in Ecuador as setting the precedent for the policy shift. The hostages were freed after their companies paid millions in ransom.

However, the United States and local authorities in Colombia and Ecuador worked together to track down the kidnappers and recover the ransom.

The bottom line, said one senior Bush official, is that paying the ransom "worked" --even though it was not U.S. policy at the time.

The new procedure affords U.S. companies, individuals and the government "more flexibility" and is a reflection, officials said, of the success they found in Ecuador.

A 1995 policy on hostage-taking said the U.S. government "will not pay ransom, release prisoners, change its policies or agree to other acts that might encourage additional terrorism."

That language is missing in the revised plan, which states that "it is U.S. government policy to deny hostage takers the benefits of ransom, prisoner releases, policy changes or other acts of concession. ...

"In the event a hostage-taking incident is resolved through concessions, U.S. policy remains steadfastly to pursue investigation leading to the apprehension and prosecution of hostage takers who victimize U.S. citizens," it continues.

The new procedure also states, "U.S. Foreign Service posts can be actively involved in efforts to bring the incident to a safe conclusion."

U.S. officials repeatedly underscored that the most important thing is to secure the safe release of American hostages.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States still believes that allowing terrorists to benefit from hostage-taking only encourages more of such acts.

"That has always been our view: that paying ransom, allowing the terrorists to acquire benefits from hostage-taking only encourages further hostage-taking," Boucher said.

"Therefore, it's important to make sure that the hostage takers, whether they're doing it for criminal reasons, financial reasons or political statements, that they don't receive any particular benefit from this."

CNN State Department Correspondent Andrea Koppel contributed to this report.




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