Washington — The Bush administration, in a policy shift, pledged Wednesday to "make every effort" to gain the release of any American kidnapped overseas, placing new emphasis on private citizens.
Previously, the U.S. government focused on protecting its diplomats and workers around the world and didn't review every private kidnapping case "to the extent to which it would be examined now," State Department Richard Boucher said.
But in a restatement of a long-standing U.S. position, the administration ruled out paying ransom or making other concessions, and it advised corporations with kidnapped employees to do the same.
"Paying ransom, allowing the terrorist to acquire benefits from hostage taking, only encourages further hostage taking," said Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman.
The new U.S. policy was put this way: "The U.S. government will make every effort, including contact with representatives of the captors, to obtain the release of hostages without making concessions to the hostage-takers."
The U.S. government despite its strict no-ransom policy could become involved in hostage-taking cases in which companies end up paying millions of dollars for the release of private Americans.
"What may be a little different now is to say we will look at every kidnapping and every hostage taking to consider what the U.S. government can do to gain the safe return of the individual, whether it's an official American or a private American," Boucher said.
Boucher also said the U.S. government would emphasize the arrest afterward of kidnappers, who he said "go from one crime to another, if they keep getting away with it."
Last year, an oil consortium paid a reported $13 million ransom to free seven foreign oil workers in Ecuador including four Americans. The governments of Ecuador and Colombia later arrested a gang of 57 people alleged to be the kidnappers, and said they had been responsible for several previous kidnappings, too.
Wednesday's statement is the result of a review of a 1995 policy begun at the National Security Council in the closing days of the Clinton administration. It reflects a consensus within government agencies that include the State Department, CIA, the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the FBI, and it was approved by President Bush.
The statement was issued amid efforts to locate and liberate Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter held hostage in Pakistan. Also, American missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham of Wichita, Kan., and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap are being held by the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines.
Boucher said the Pearl case did not intensify the review. But, he said, "Certainly Mr. Pearl's fate remains of great concern to us; he's very much on our minds."
Oreta Burnham, mother of Martin Burnham, said, "We think it's a very good policy. We think it will help people in the future."
She added, "Whatever gets Martin and Gracia out is OK with us."
According to the State Department, more than a dozen U.S. citizens were kidnapped in Colombia in 1999.
Employees of international oil, gas and mining companies are considered the most at risk of being kidnapped overseas on the theory their companies can afford ransom payments.