The US government will "make every effort" to win release of Americans kidnapped overseas, the State Department announced, in a shift of policy. It said a committee known as the Hostage Subgroup will examine each case and recommend action, which could involve military force. But the US still won't pay ransom or make other concessions to hostage takers, a department spokesman said. The change comes as Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl is being held in Pakistan and two American missionaries are the prisoners of rebels in the Philippines. (Related story, page 1.)

Rival warlords and ethnic tensions remain a threat to stability in Afghanistan, a classified CIA document warns, according to a report in The New York Times. The Bush administration is divided on how to address the problem, the paper added, and civil war does not appear imminent. The State Department recommends enlarging and expanding the duties of the 4,000-member British-led international security force there. But Defense Secretary Rumsfeld reportedly considers that to be a drain on US resources for the counterterrorism war elsewhere.

The US trade deficit fell to $346.3 billion in 2001, its first dip in six years, the Commerce Department reported. The 7.8 percent decline was attributed to the recession, and most economists predict a further drop this year. Even so, the imbalance is the second-largest in US history. China remains the country's most lopsided trading partner, with an $83.05 billion difference between imports and exports last year.

In what could turn into another Olympic skating flap, the South Korean team's head coach said he'd file a protest, after American Apolo Anton Ohno (above) was awarded the gold in the men's 1,500-meter short track race. First-place finisher Kim Dong Sung of South Korea was disqualified for blocking Ohno's path. The South Korean coach complained that pressure from US news media had resulted in favorable treatment for American athletes. (Opinion, page 11.)

In today's women's giant slalom skiing event, Croatia's Janica Kostelic is aiming to set a Winter Olympic record of four medals in Alpine events. She already has two golds and a silver. Meanwhile, third-generation US Olympian Jimmy Shea paid tribute to his grandfather, who died last month, after winning gold in the skeleton sled race Wednesday. Martin Rettl of Austria took the silver and Gregor Staehli of Switzerland the bronze. (Related stories, pages 1, 12.)

Security around the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia was stepped up, after federal authorities received a "nonspecific" threat of an attack against the icon of American freedom. While armed police patrols were increased, among other measures, the warning was not deemed urgent enough to close the historic area to tourists.

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