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Obama Announces Changes to US Hostage Policy


President Barack Obama announces a change in U.S. policy in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, June 24, 2015.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday unveiled an extensive reform of U.S. policies for dealing with hostage-takers, in which he pledged to use "all instruments of national power" to recover Americans held by terrorists abroad.

In a lengthy policy directive released shortly before the president's White House meeting with former hostages and their families, Obama said the government could and would "assist private efforts to communicate with hostage-takers ... through public or private intermediaries."

Unlike some European allies, the United States does not make concessions to hostage-takers and has a strict no-payments strategy, saying ransoms only encourage further kidnappings and put funds in the hands of militants.

Wednesday's action was prompted by sharp criticism of the government's handling of hostage incidents by victims' relatives who said they had been threatened with prosecution if they paid, or tried to pay, any ransom.

The government, Obama said, will no longer threaten to prosecute families who try to negotiate with kidnappers or choose to pay ransom to win their relatives' release.

"These families have already suffered enough, and they should never feel ignored or victimized by their own government," he said.

Abiding by results of a six-month policy guidelines review for dealing with hostage situations, Obama said the government would maintain its rule of making "no concessions" to hostage-takers, and still opposed the payment of ransoms.

"I firmly believe that the United States government paying ransom to terrorists risks endangering more Americans and funding the very terrorism that we’re trying to stop, and so I firmly believe that our policy ultimately puts fewer Americans at risk," he said. "At the same time, we are clarifying that our policy does not prevent communication with hostage-takers — by our government, the families of hostages, or third parties who help these families.

"When appropriate, our government may assist these families and private efforts in those communications — in part, to ensure the safety of family members and to make sure that they’re not defrauded," he said. "So my message to these families is simple: We’re not going to abandon you. We will stand by you."

As part of the new policy, a central hub called the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell is being created at the FBI that will bring together experts from across government to locate and rescue hostages, and that will work closely with families, helping to facilitate communication with kidnappers.

Obama also said he would soon appoint "a senior diplomat as my special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, who will be focused solely on leading our diplomatic efforts with other countries to bring our people home."

The president ended his remarks on this note: “Today, my message to anyone who harms Americans is that we do not forget. Our reach is long. Justice will be done.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists — a group representing a profession whose members are especially vulnerable to terrorism — said it supported the policy changes.

Executive Director Joel Simon said Wednesday that the new policy "should lessen the anguish of the families and improve the likelihood of a successful outcome. ... Each kidnapping is different, so successful resolution depends on maintaining a flexible, pragmatic approach."

Several U.S. hostages have been killed in the past year in the Middle East, including some beheaded in videos released by Islamic State militants.

Last year, U.S. officials exchanged five Taliban detainees held at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to secure the release of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held five years by Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

White House Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco told reporters that more than 30 Americans were now being held outside the United States.

VOA's Aru Pande contributed to this report from the White House. Some information for this report came from Reuters.