- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2014

A U.S. journalist held hostage for nearly two years by al Qaeda’s branch in Syria was freed Sunday, turned over to U.N. peacekeepers less than a week after another American was executed by a rival terrorist group.

Peter Theo Curtis of Boston, who had been held by the Nusra Front, was handed over to a U.N. force in the Golan Heights, a disputed region on the border of Syria and Israel, around 6:40 p.m. local time.

“After receiving a medical checkup, Mr. Curtis was handed over to representatives of his government,” the United Nations said in a statement.


SEE ALSO: Islamic State video shows beheading of American photojournalist


Meanwhile, Islamic State fighters captured a major military air base in northeastern Syria on Sunday, eliminating the last government-held outpost in a province otherwise dominated by the jihadi group, activists and state media said. The development came amid indications that the Obama administration is considering air strikes in Syria against the terrorist group, a possible expansion of the three-week-old air war that has been limited to Iraq.

Tabqa airfield — home to several warplane squadrons, helicopters, tanks, artillery and ammunition bunkers — is the third military base in the area to fall to the extremists since last month. Those victories are part of the Islamic State group’s aggressive push to consolidate its hold on northern and eastern provinces, while also expanding the boundaries of its self-styled caliphate straddling the Syria-Iraq border.

The release of Mr. Curtis, coming just days after terrorists of the Islamic State executed American journalist James Foley, was hailed by the Obama administration.


SEE ALSO: Obama: U.S. won’t stop confronting Islamic State, appalled by Foley murder


“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 F. Kerry said in a statement. “Over these last two years, the United States reached out to more than two dozen countries asking for urgent help from anyone who might have tools, influence, or leverage to help secure Theo’s release and the release of any Americans held hostage in Syria.”

Mr. Curtis, a freelance journalist, was abducted near the Syria-Turkey border in October 2012. The Nusra Front has split from the Islamic State, which it considers even more radical.

While a secret U.S. military mission failed to rescue hostages in Syria last month, Mr. Kerry said the U.S. also had been working through back channels for the past two years to try to gain Mr. Curtis‘ release.

“The United States reached out to more than two dozen countries asking for urgent help from anyone who might have tools, influence, or leverage to help secure Theo’s release and the release of any Americans held hostage in Syria,” Mr. Kerry said.

A statement from the Curtis family said the government of Qatar was involved in negotiations to free him. The administration used Qatar as a middleman this spring in negotiations with the Taliban to free captured Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a deal that also resulted in the release of five top Taliban leaders from U.S. custody at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.

“The Curtis family is deeply grateful to the governments of the United States and Qatar and to the many individuals, private and public, who helped negotiate the release of our son, brother and cousin,” the family said.

President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, said the president and his team were celebrating Mr. Curtis’s freedom and working to bring back other American hostages in Syria.

“We hold in our thoughts and prayers the Americans who remain in captivity in Syria,” Ms. Rice said in a statement. “Notwithstanding today’s welcome news, the events of the past week shocked the conscience of the world. As President Obama said, we have and will continue to use all of the tools at our disposal to see that the remaining American hostages are freed.”

The Islamic State group launched its long-anticipated offensive in Syria last week to seize the sprawling Tabqa facility, located some 25 miles from the extremists’ stronghold in the city of Raqqa along the Euphrates River.

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