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How best to win US hostages' release?

The case of three captives in Colombia, held since 2003, tests the Bush administration's 'no negotiation' policy.

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Patience is wearing thin for Gene and Lynn Stansell.

The Florida couple's son is one of three American hostages held by a narco-terrorist group in the Colombian jungle and the Stansells say they believe the US government's refusal to negotiate with the group is the reason that the three have been held for more than four years.

President Bush's "policy of just not negotiating with terrorists has just gotten this country into a mess and, unfortunately, our son is in the middle of this," says Lynn Stansell. "How are you ever going to come up with any political or humanitarian exchange if you never talk to these people?"

Their case is raising anew the question of whether the US should negotiate with terrorists. The men have been held longer than any other US hostages, military officials say.

Mr. and Mrs. Stansell's son, Keith, and two others, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves, have been held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, since February 2003, when their plane, on a counternarcotics mission for the Defense Department, went down in Colombia in FARC-controlled territory. Their case is not well known by the American public. That is in part because they were taken captive in the month before the invasion of Iraq. Also, the Bush administration's strategy for securing their release appears to be more focused on a military rescue than public diplomacy with the group that would generate publicity.

But on Tuesday, there was a sign that the US Justice Department wants to negotiate a peaceful resolution. A US federal court has convicted Ricardo Palmera, a leftist paramilitary commander considered a leader of the FARC, on some charges for conspiring to take the US hostages. Mr. Palmera, also known as Simon Trinidad, faces decades in prison. US Justice Department officials say they would consider a lenient sentence for Palmera if the three Americans are released, according to the Associated Press. US officials deny that the overture is a negotiation of sorts, but simply an attempt to seek cooperation as they would in any criminal case.

"Our priority has always been the release of the hostages," the wire service quoted Assistant US Attorney Kenneth Kohl as saying Tuesday. "If they were released, say, next week, we would take that into consideration."

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