- 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.

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: Islamic State video shows beheading of American photojournalist

“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.

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

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.

After several failed efforts to breach the walls in recent days, Islamic State fighters managed to punch through and storm the air base Sunday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Government warplanes carried out waves of airstrikes to try to beat back the attack, but those ultimately proved unable to stem the assault.

“Some of the Syrian regime troops pulled out, and now the Islamic State is in full control of Tabqa,” observatory director Rami Abdurrahman said. “This makes Raqqa province the first to fully fall out of government hands.”

Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, also said the extremist group was in control of Tabqa.

The SANA state news agency confirmed that the government had lost the air base, saying troops “are successfully reassembling after evacuating the airport.” It said that the military was still “striking terrorist groups, inflicting heavy losses on them.”

The government had made significant investments in both weapons and manpower to try to hold onto Tabqa, making its fall both a symbolic and a strategic blow.

Islamic State fighters had been closing in on the base for weeks. When the fight finally came, it was bloody.

The observatory said that at least 100 Islamic State fighters were killed and another 300 wounded in the fighting, numbers that exclude casualties from the final assault. It said more than 170 government troops also were killed Sunday alone, and there were reports that another 150 may have been captured.

Tabqa is the latest in a string of bases to fall to the Islamic State group as it strengthens its hold over a vast swath of territory in northern and eastern Syria. Last month, the extremists overran the sprawling Division 17 military base in Raqqa, killing at least 85 soldiers. Two weeks later, they seized the nearby Brigade 93 base after days of heavy fighting.

With the Islamic State raising concerns about an attack on the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI put out a bulletin to local law enforcement last week telling them to be aware of the group, while reiterating there is no evidence of a threat to homeland at this point.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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