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Bush Veers Close to Accusing Israel of Hostage-taking, then Backs off

President Bush came close Thursday to accusing Israel of taking hostages, but promptly backed away.

Bush said he believes Israel is holding hostages, but conceded it was a matter of definition. Israel views the Shi’ites it has in custody as legitimate prisoners, the president said.

Bush made his comments at a news conference, where he said “the United States is opposed to taking hostages.” He added personally, “I want to see all hostages released.”

When a reporter asked if he considers Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, spiritual leader of a faction of the Moslem fundamentalist group Hezbollah, and 400 other Shi’ites held prisoner by Israel to be hostages, Bush indicated agreement.

He said, however, that there are “definitional problems” regarding Israel’s view of its prisoners.

Pressed to explain, Bush replied that “some people view people they hold as having broken their laws, some don’t, and it is not for the United States to make these determinations.”

He added, “It is for the United States to say we oppose the taking of hostages and holding people against their will, just to effect some kind of political change.”

Israeli officials said Thursday that all detainees held by Israel were arrested because they were connected one way or another with terrorist activities.

Some have been charged and convicted, while others are still under investigation, the Israelis said.

Bush repeated that the U.S. policy against making any deals for hostages still holds. But the president said he would approve a “goodwill gesture” toward Iran, for its role in the release of two American hostages held in Lebanon.

Robert Polhill was freed April 22, after three years of captivity. Frank Herbert Reed, kidnapped in 1986, was released in Beirut on Monday.

Bush defined a goodwill gesture as one “that wouldn’t be perceived as negotiating for the release of hostages.”

An example, he said, would be a positive response to Iran’s repeated requests for information about the fate of four of their diplomats who were seized in Lebanon in 1982.

“If there is some way that we can go back and get any information, it would relieve the anxieties of the loved ones of those four people,” Bush said. “We ought to do that.”

However, the president said, the “best information we have” is that “these people are not alive.”

White House spokesman Douglas Davidson later clarified that the president had not been referring to any Israeli involvement in this incident, that the Iranians were taken by an unknown Lebanese group. At least one network correspondent erroneously reported that Israel had seized the diplomats.

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