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European leaders say they welcome Rice's assurances on detainees

BRUSSELS, Belgium—The United States and Europe showed signs Thursday of putting a transatlantic dispute over detainee treatment behind them for now, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's European colleagues saying they welcomed her assurances on American policy.

"It cleared the air," said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the secretary general of the NATO alliance.

De Hoop Scheffer's view was echoed by other foreign ministers at a NATO meeting here, in a significant toning down of rhetoric over reports that the CIA has operated secret prisons for terrorism suspects in Eastern Europe and covertly transported detainees through European airspace.

Rice is scheduled to return to Washington on Friday, ending a four-day mission in which she tried to defuse a growing public furor in Europe.

Europeans' concerns over American treatment of detainees had threatened to complicate a major expansion of a NATO-led Afghanistan peacekeeping force, which will see 6,000 new troops dispatched to that country's volatile south.

The Netherlands, which will provide some of the new troops, requested assurances from NATO and Afghan authorities that prisoners taken by Dutch forces won't be abused.

Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot said he was satisfied with Rice's guarantees.

After struggling at first to clarify U.S. policy, Rice declared Wednesday that the Bush administration acknowledges that a ban on "cruel, inhumane and degrading" treatment of prisoners applies to U.S. personnel operating overseas—not just on U.S. territory, as the White House had maintained previously.

At NATO headquarters Thursday, Rice appeared to go a step further, suggesting that not just government employees are covered but all U.S. citizens, which would encompass Defense Department and CIA contractors.

"The president of the United States is not going to ask American citizens to violate U.S. law or violate our international obligations," she said.

When she was asked whether there were any exceptions or loopholes in the policy, however, she declined to respond and merely restated it.

Rice and other administration officials have declined to spell out the interrogation techniques that the administration now considers cruel, inhumane or degrading, and what methods are permitted.

She acknowledged that abuses could still happen. "Will there be abuses of policy? That is entirely possible," Rice said. Mistreatment of prisoners will be investigated and punished, she said, adding, "That is the only promise that we can make to people."

Britain's highest court ruled Thursday that no evidence obtained by torture is admissible in a British court "irrespective of where, or by whom, or on whose authority the torture was inflicted."

Rice addressed the detainee issue at the start of a dinner Wednesday night with colleagues from NATO and the European Union, apparently to get the meeting's most contentious issue out of the way.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said Rice's remarks at the dinner were welcome.

"Anyone on the planet has the right to be respected. ... International law is the right of everyone. I was able to repeat that also," Douste-Blazy said.

Douste-Blazy didn't express great concern about CIA overflights, the subject of extensive reports in French newspapers. He said civilian aviation authorities had identified two suspicious flights. "We have no additional information," he said.

In public, Rice consistently has refused to respond to the reports of secret CIA prisons and flights carrying detainees. Her foreign counterparts didn't press for details about such activities, according to a senior State Department official who was privy to some of the conversations and who spoke only on condition of anonymity.

The expansion of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan that was approved Thursday would increase the force to more than 15,000 soldiers, who'd be deployed in six southern provinces where U.S. combat forces continue to battle Islamic militants.

The United States has eagerly sought the new commitment, which includes training for the Afghan army and backing for efforts to curb opium trafficking. The Bush administration hopes it will lead to reducing the 20,000 U.S. troops who are in Afghanistan.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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