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U.S. OFFICIALS STILL HOPE PILOT WILL BE FREED BY CHRISTMAS

SHARE U.S. OFFICIALS STILL HOPE PILOT WILL BE FREED BY CHRISTMAS

No word has come Friday of any progress in efforts to obtain the release of an American pilot held by North Korea, but U.S. officials still hope he'll be out by Christmas.

U.S. military spokesman Jim Coles said he had heard of no meetings at the truce village of Panmunjom, in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas.It was the site for the repatriation Thursday of Chief Warrant Officer David Hilemon's body. He and Chief Warrant Officer Bobby Hall were aboard a U.S. Army OH-58C helicopter that strayed into North Korea last Saturday and either made an emergency landing or was shot down.

U.S. Rep. Bill Richardson, who helped arrange the deal on the body's return, said it also called for Hall to be freed "very soon." Although Richardson said he hoped that would be before Christmas, the North Koreans made no commitment on a date.

Pyongyang has said Hall is in good health and being held until it completes its investigation of the helicopter incident. The United States has insisted the chopper was unarmed and on a routine training mission.

Speculation on why the pilots were more than 10 miles off-course has centered on disorientation because heavy snow had fallen the night before, covering landmarks and navigational markers.

North Korea said its troops shot down the chopper, although U.S. officials cannot confirm that without talking to Hall.

Although North Korean officials in New York and Geneva have called the incident a "surprise attack" and a spy mission, North Korea's official media has been nearly mute on the incident, with no anti-American rhetoric.

Pyongyang has been seeking improved relations with the United States, and they had been warming after an Oct. 21 accord with Washington.

The accord is designed to freeze the North's nuclear program, suspected of producing weapons-grade plutonium, in exchange for two safer reactors, worth $4 billion, and diplomatic relations with Washington.

In five days of "very, very heated discussion," Richardson said, North Korean officials insisted on keeping Hall for questioning.

"They were worried about conspiracy theories and acceleration of tension. But I think it's been proven to them that it was an accident, that it was unintentional."