US hostage in Syria freed after two years in captivity
WASHINGTON // Al Qaeda-linked militants in Syria on Sunday freed an American writer missing since 2012 following what officials said were efforts by Qatar to win his release.
US secretary of state John Kerry said that Peter Theo Curtis had been held by Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s official wing in Syria whose rivalry with militant group Islamic State has fuelled war among the insurgents themselves.
Qatar’s Foreign Ministry confirmed late Sunday that the Gulf emirate succeeded in gaining Mr Curtis’ release.
A government statement released by the official Qatar News Agency 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.”
President Barack Obama, who was briefed on Mr Curtis’ release “shares in the joy and relief that we all feel now that Theo is out of Syria and safe”, the White House said.
“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,” the White House said.
News of Mr Curtis’ release emerged just days after the Islamic State group posted a video on the Internet showing one of its fighters beheading American journalist James Foley, who was kidnapped in Syria in 2012.
The United Nations said “it can confirm that it facilitated the handover of Peter Theo Curtis. He was handed over to UN peacekeepers in Al Rafid village, Quneitra, the Golan Heights, at 6:40 pm [local time] on 24 August 2014. After receiving a medical check-up, Mr Curtis was handed over to representatives of his government.”
A senior UN official said the negotiations for Mr Curtis’ release were handled by the Qataris.
Qatar, whose intervention in Mr 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, but Qatar on Saturday hit back at those suggestions and called for “determined, collective action” to end sectarian violence gripping Iraq and Syria.
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.
White House national security adviser Susan Rice said that Mr Curtis, 45, was “safe outside of Syria, and we expect he will be reunited with his family shortly”.
Mr Curtis is an author and journalist who published books under the name Theo Padnos. His family said he changed his name legally to Peter Theo Curtis after he published a memoir called “Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen.” The name change was to make it easier to travel in the Muslim world, the family said.
The family said it was “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”.
“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,” said Mr Curtis’ mother, Nancy Curtis. “Please know that we will be eternally grateful.”
The statement added that while the family was “not privy to the exact terms that were negotiated, we were repeatedly told by representatives of the Qatari government that they were mediating for Theo’s release on a humanitarian basis without the payment of money”. “We are also deeply saddened by the terrible, unjustified killing last week of [Curtis’] fellow journalist, Jim Foley,” the family said, appealing for the release of other hostages.
The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists also welcomed the release of Mr Curtis “after nearly two years of harrowing captivity in Syria”. It estimates that about 20 journalists are missing in Syria. Many of them are believed to be held by Islamic State. * Reuters, with additional reporting from Associated Press