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US walks fine line on hostages. `Negotiation' with terrorists is out, but a `dialogue' is OK

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Has the United States abandoned its often-stated policy of not making concessions to terrorists? The question has been raised by a Muslim fundamentalist group's release of American hostage David P. Jacobsen and speculation that other Western hostages in Lebanon will be released soon. Mr. Jacobsen's release has also touched off speculation about what parties the US is dealing with and through in its efforts to free the hostages.

Administration officials refuse to discuss the terms of Jacobsen's release, saying that such information would jeopardize efforts to gain the release of other hostages. But US officials have repeatedly said they have not made concessions to terrorists, nor will they, and they will not ask other countries to make concessions to help free 17 American, French, and other hostages being held by various radical groups in Lebanon.

Questions about US negotiations over the American hostages were fueled by a recent statement by Lebanese Shiite Muslim leader Nabih Berri, who suggested that the US may be negotiating with Kuwaiti authorities to secure the release of pro-Iranian terrorists imprisoned in Kuwait.

In addition, a statement issued in Beirut over the weekend by Jacobsen's captors implied that the American's release was brought about as a result of actions initiated by the US.

Islamic Jihad, a Lebanon-based pro-Iranian terrorist organization, held Jacobsen hostage for 17 months and is believed still to be holding at least two other Americans. It has publicly demanded the release of 17 convicted terrorists imprisoned in Kuwait in exchange for freeing the American hostages.

Middle East experts say it is highly unlikely that the White House would agree to an exchange of terrorists for hostages. They note that the administration has been careful to draw the distinction between bargaining for the release of the hostages and simply establishing lines of communication.

The experts stress that offering direct concessions to terrorists is not the only way of gaining the safe release of kidnapped Americans.

For example, US officials - working through trusted intermediaries such as Terry Waite, the British Anglican Church representative who played in role in Jacobsen's release - can work to convince terrorists that their hostages have become more of a liability than an asset to the captors' cause.


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