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American journalist released in Syria

BEIRUT, Lebanon — An American journalist abducted by rebels in Syria was freed Sunday after nearly two years in captivity, but his release appears to have little bearing on the fates of other hostages under threat of death from their kidnappers because of the U.S. airstrikes in Iraq.

The tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar played a key role in negotiating the release of Peter Theo Curtis of Massachusetts, who disappeared in October 2012 shortly after he crossed the Turkish border into northern Syria, U.S. officials and a statement from his family said. He was handed over to the United Nations in Syria on Sunday and is now safely out of the country, U.S. officials said.

Curtis, 45, had been kidnapped by the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-affiliated group, according to the State Department, and he was not believed to be connected to the American hostages held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

His release came a few days after ISIS issued a video announcing it had beheaded U.S. journalist James Foley and threatening the same fate for another hostage, Steven Sot­loff, who is from Miami, if the United States does not call off its airstrikes in Iraq.

The U.S. military said the airstrikes continued Sunday, with one attack near the Kurdistan regional capital, Irbil, and another in the vicinity of the Mosul Dam, which was recaptured from ISIS forces last week.

Curtis' captors with the Nusra Front have been at war with ISIS, which holds three other U.S. hostages, for control of parts of Syria in recent months. The whereabouts of a fourth American hostage, journalist Austin Tice, are not known, but he is not believed to be with ISIS, U.S. officials say.

Curtis' release was nonetheless welcomed by U.S. officials as a relief from the grim news of recent days.

"Particularly after a week marked by unspeakable tragedy, we are all relieved and grateful knowing that Theo Curtis is coming home," Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.

The United States had sought help from more than two dozen countries in an effort to secure Curtis' release, in close coordination with his mother, Kerry said. Details of the kidnapping had been kept under wraps at the request of the family in order to facilitate the negotiations.

Curtis' family issued a statement expressing gratitude to the U.S. government and to Qatar.

"Please know that we will be eternally grateful," said his mother, Nancy Curtis, of Cambridge, Mass.

"We are so relieved that Theo is healthy and safe and that he is finally headed home after his ordeal, but we are also deeply saddened by the terrible, unjustified killing last week of his fellow journalist, Jim Foley, at the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria," she said.

Qatar has been central to a number of hostage releases in Syria in recent months, a sign of its influence over at least some of the rebel groups battling to overthrow President Bashar Assad. Many of the releases have involved captives held by the Nusra Front, one of the groups Qatar has been accused of funding, though it has denied it.

In two cases negotiated by Qatar last year, Lebanese captives and a group of Syrian nuns in rebel custody were exchanged for prisoners held by the Assad government.

Qatar has also played a part in negotiations for the release of other Westerners captured by Syrian rebels, in some instances involving ransoms, according to a Lebanese security official who is familiar with the negotiation process.

Hopes for Curtis' release were first raised in June, when Al-Jazeera obtained a video in which he appeared to be in good health and stated that he was being held captive in Syria.

Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, denied that any ransom was paid on behalf of Curtis, either by the U.S. government or by a third party.

"The U.S. government does not make concessions to terrorists, which includes paying ransom. We did not do so in this case," she said. "We also do not support any third party paying ransom, and did not do so in this case. We are unequivocal in our opposition to paying ransom to terrorists."

Harf said Curtis' release followed a "direct request from the Curtis family itself to the Qatari government for its assistance." She declined to give further details.

Curtis had written about Syria and Yemen under his birth name, Theo Padnos, in publications including the New Republic, the Huffington Post and the London Review of Books.

He spoke Arabic, wrote a book about Yemen and spent the years 2007 through 2010 living in Syria, before the revolt against Assad. He returned again to Damascus after the 2011 uprising. In the fall of 2012 he went to Turkey, the access point for journalists seeking to enter rebel-held northern Syria, and was last seen in October 2012 in the Turkish border town of Antakya, after telling colleagues that he planned to teach English in Syria.

Britain pursues

killer's identity

The British ambassador to the United States said Sunday that investigators were close to identifying the young militant with a British accent who beheaded American journalist James Foley on a video released last week by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The ambassador, Peter Westmacott, said in an interview on CNN that British counterterrorism officers, supported by American counterparts, were making progress in using clues in the video to pick the killer out of the hundreds of British Muslims who had joined ISIS.

American journalist released in Syria 08/24/14 [Last modified: Monday, August 25, 2014 12:25am]

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