BUSH'S HINTS ABOUT HOSTAGES TANTALIZE WASHINGTON

At his press conference Tuesday morning, President Bush threw out an intriguing hint regarding the hostage situation. ``And when the whole story comes out on this,'' he said, ``you all are going to be very, very fascinated with the details.''

Very few details have entered the public record so far, but March has been full of rumors and reports of unofficial movement toward possible release of Western hostages held in the Middle East.

For the most part, the White House has downplayed the reports in an effort to minimize what presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater calls ``false hopes and false expectations.''

Yet Mr. Bush dramatized his willingness to work any channel of communication by accepting what the White House later said they knew was a suspect call - purportedly from Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The call turned out to be a hoax, but Bush said that given the same information, he would do it again.

``It's very important to run down every avenue in terms of these hostages ...,'' he said. ``And there are things that go on, going around in back alleys and trying to find information, and we've got to do that.''

Mr. Fitzwater said on March 5, as reports were reaching a crescendo, that no US officials were talking to Iranians about the hostages and that the White House knew of no movement or imminent release of hostages.

Stories of hostage diplomacy, said Fitzwater, were coming from businessmen working with their own international contacts, third-country diplomats, families and business representatives of hostages, or political factions in the Mideast planting stories for ulterior motives.

Some of the freelance negotiators have asked US officials for advice, Fitzwater added, and have even claimed to represent the US government. But they do not, he said.

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