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An EP-3 Aries II aircraft, like the one detained in China along with its 24 American crewmembers(Official Photo)
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'H' Word May Soon Surface

When Does A Detainee Become A Hostage?

WASHINGTON (April 10) -- What is a hostage?

That semantic question is taking on geopolitical significance as the White House tries to persuade China to let 24 American crewmembers of a Navy spy plane come home.

Bush administration officials deny the term applies. At least not yet.

They aren't hostages, Vice President Cheney said Sunday on ABC's This Week, ''because we have access to them, because they are being treated very well, because we expect they will be released shortly.'' He said the crewmembers weren't captured but instead were detained after their plane made an emergency landing after its collision with a Chinese fighter jet.

Even so, Beijing's refusal to let the Americans leave until the administration apologizes for the collision and the loss of a Chinese pilot seems to fit the United Nations' definition of hostage-taking. The U.N. defines a hostage-taker as ''any person who seizes or detains or threatens to kill, to injure, or continue to detain another person in order to compel a third party to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for their release.''

The Bush administration is determined to avoid the word for as long as possible. Referring to the American ''hostages'' could escalate the crisis and inflame passions in both nations.

From its start in 1979, a drumbeat on how many days Iranian revolutionaries had held Americans hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran created a political nightmare for President Carter. State Department officials had initially argued that the Americans weren't hostages, although by the third day, news reports routinely referred to them that way. The crisis lasted 444 days.

How long before these Americans are called hostages?

''We've got 24 young American 'detainees,' I'll call them this morning,'' Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said on CBS' Face the Nation . ''If you ask me the question . . . in two or three days, I'm going to call them 'hostages.' ''

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