WASHINGTON (AP) - An American journalist kidnapped and held hostage for nearly two years by an al-Qaida-linked group in Syria was released Sunday, less than a week after the horrific execution of American journalist James Foley by Islamic militants.
The freed American is 45-year-old Peter Theo Curtis of Massachusetts, who wrote under the byline Theo Padnos.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Curtis was held by Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-linked militant group fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. His freedom was facilitated by the energy-rich Gulf nation of Qatar, which is a leading supporter of the Syrian rebels fighting to oust President Bashar Assad and has been involved in mediating past hostage releases.
Curtis was not believed to be among the hostages held by the Islamic State group that executed Foley. Islamic State was formally disavowed by al-Qaida earlier this year after being deemed too brutal. Curtis’ relatives said they were not aware of the specific terms of his release but said they were assured by Qatari representatives that they negotiated Curtis’ release without a ransom payment.
President Barack Obama, who was wrapping up a vacation in Massachusetts, was briefed Sunday morning on Curtis’ release.
“The president shares in the joy and relief that we all feel now that Theo is out of Syria and safe,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz. “But we continue to hold in our thoughts and prayers the Americans who remain in captivity in Syria, and we will continue to use all of the tools at our disposal to see that the remaining American hostages are freed.”
A senior administration official said Curtis was released in the Golan Heights, where he was met by U.S. government personnel who were transporting him to Tel Aviv. The official was not authorized to speak by name and discussed the release on the condition of anonymity.
Qatar’s Foreign Ministry confirmed late Sunday that the Gulf emirate succeeded in gaining Curtis’ release. A government statement released by the official Qatar News Agency said he was kidnapped in Syria in 2012 and said Qatar “exerted relentless efforts to release the American journalist out of Qatar’s belief in the principles of humanity and out of concern for the lives of individuals and their right to freedom and dignity.” The agency said Curtis was handed over to United Nations representatives.
In a video obtained by The Associated Press and dated July 18, 2014, Curtis sits cross-legged on a floor with his hands bound, and appears to read from a sheet placed in front of him on the floor. Addressing the U.S. and European governments, he pleads for them to contact a named intermediary before it is too late.
“They have given me three days to live,” he says as a man holding an assault rifle and dressed in camouflage stands next to him. “If you don’t do anything, I’m finished. I’m dead. They will kill me. Three days. You have had 20 days, and you’ve done nothing. “
He does not specify any demands, only urges Western governments to make contact with the intermediary.
Qatar, whose intervention in Curtis’ case may have been expedited by Foley’s execution, has come under renewed scrutiny over ties to militants, including the Palestinian Hamas and Syrian rebel groups. A German official last week suggested that Qatar may also play a role in funding the Islamic State group.
In March, the Qataris helped negotiate the release of more than a dozen Greek Orthodox nuns held by the Nusra Front. Late last year, Qatar also helped broker a deal that saw nine Lebanese pilgrims held in Syria by rebels go free in exchange for the release of two Turkish pilots held hostage in Lebanon.
His family said they believe Curtis was captured in October 2012, shortly after crossing into Syria.
“My heart is full at the extraordinary, dedicated, incredible people, too many to name individually, who have become my friends and have tirelessly helped us over these many months,” Curtis’ mother, Nancy Curtis, said in a statement from the family. “Please know that we will be eternally grateful.”