Syria denies holding journalist Austin Tice after White House claims otherwise

Syria’s foreign ministry said in a rare statement that the country “denies that it has abducted or is harboring any American citizen who entered its territory or resides under the sovereignty and authority of the Syrian government.”

The comments come a week after US President Joe Biden said Washington knew “for sure” the Syrian government was holding ties.

The Syrian government has denied holding Tice on multiple occasions, but before Wednesday’s statement, it had not publicly addressed the journalist’s whereabouts since 2016.

Tice disappeared in the Syrian capital of Damascus while working as a freelance journalist for CBS, The Washington Post and The McClatchy Company.

Tyce’s family said Austin was traveling in the Damascus suburb of Daraya when he was arrested at a checkpoint on August 13, 2012, in one of his final parts of the summer. He was to leave for Lebanon the next day. The Texas native and US Marine Corps veteran was supposed to be home to finish his final year of law school at Georgetown University.

Since then, the only information Tice’s family has received from his captors is a 43-second video that surfaced five weeks after his disappearance. It was titled “Austin Tice is Alive” and showed Tice and a group of armed men, but contained no other information.

In its statement on Wednesday, the Syrian government denied that Tice had ever been arrested.

10th anniversary of disappearance

Tice was one of the first journalists to disappear after Syria’s peaceful pro-democracy protests sparked by the Arab Spring were violently suppressed by the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Successive US administrations have argued that Tice is alive and being held somewhere in Syria. There was no indication that ISIS, which has kidnapped several American journalists including James Foley and Steven Sotloff, had been abducted or held.

Although the FBI offered a $1 million reward for information on Tice’s whereabouts, his case languished for years.

Tice’s parents have worked diligently to bring government and media attention to their son’s disappearance. During a meeting with Biden at the White House in May, the president “reaffirmed his commitment to continuing to work through all available avenues to return Austin to his long overdue family.”

According to one source and a senior administration official, the Biden administration has had direct engagements with the Syrian government in an effort to secure Tice’s release. A number of direct talks have taken place — none of them in Damascus — but they have yielded no progress so far, sources familiar with the matter said.

Last week marked the 10th anniversary of Tice’s disappearance, which her family and the White House used to reiterate their demands for information.

“We know for certain that he is being held by the Syrian regime,” Biden said in a statement last week. “We have repeatedly asked the Syrian government to work with us to bring Austin home.

“The Tice family deserves answers, and more importantly, they deserve to be reunited with Austin as soon as possible.”

Austin’s mother, Debra Tice, told CNN on her son’s 41st birthday Thursday that the president mentioned his name as a sign that the administration was willing to negotiate his release.

“I’m very happy that President Biden publicly mentioned Austin’s name,” Debra Tice told CNN’s John Berman on “New Day.” “I think this is an indication from the president that the United States government is willing to engage with Syria to bring Austin home.”

In a separate statement Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken said Washington “will continue to pursue all available avenues to bring Austin home and will work tirelessly until we succeed.”

Among those tasked with bringing Tice home was Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs who secretly traveled to Damascus and met with Assad regime officials in 2020 under the Trump administration. In May of this year, he met with top Lebanese security official Abbas Ibrahim in Washington “to discuss US citizens missing or detained in Syria,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said at the time.

Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate, has previously played a role in the release of American detainees from Syria, including Sam Goodwin and Iran’s Nizar Zikka.

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