WASHINGTON (AP) -- It's become a common tactic among extremists and criminals bedeviling countries like Pakistan, Colombia, Ecuador and the Philippines: Grab an American hostage, either for ransom or to draw attention to a political cause.
It happened to journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan and missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham in the Philippines. A year ago, it happened to American and other foreign oil workers in Ecuador.
The U.S. government, grappling with how to solve such cases without provoking more, announced a policy shift Wednesday to "make every effort" to gain the release of all Americans kidnapped overseas, even private citizens.
But in a restatement of a long-standing U.S. ban, officials again ruled out paying ransom or making other concessions, and advised corporations with kidnapped employees to heed the advice.
"Paying ransom, allowing the terrorist to acquire benefits from hostage-taking, only encourages further hostage-taking," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
Both the new U.S. hostage policy and the 1995 policy it replaces state that the U.S. government will make no concessions to hostage-takers.
But in a crucial change, the new policy removes a paragraph that said U.S. Foreign Service posts "will limit their participation" to helping make contact with foreign governments in cases in which private organizations or citizens negotiate ransoms.
The old policy also stated flatly that the "U.S. government cannot participate in developing and implementing a ransom strategy." The new policy says if the hostage-taking is resolved "through concessions," the U.S. government will find and prosecute hostage-takers.
This shift could entangle the United States in hostage situations in which companies, desperate to free their workers, are prepared to pay ransom in violation of U.S. policy.
Under the new policy, a committee known as the Hostage Subgroup will examine every case in which an American is taken hostage overseas and determine the most appropriate action.
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