State Department officials on Monday denied a French news report that a missing American journalist has been seen in captivity in Syria and that the Syrian government has acknowledged holding him.
The official, speaking only on the condition of anonymity per the department’s protocol, confirmed that there had been direct U.S.-Syrian talks in the case but said no one had seen Austin Tice in Syria on behalf of the U.S. government.
“We have been in periodic, direct contact with Syrian government officials strictly on consular issues, including the case of Austin Tice,” the official said. “For privacy and security reasons, we cannot provide additional details.”
The French newspaper Le Figaro reported March 20 what sounded like a long-awaited breakthrough in the case of Tice, a Marine veteran who became a freelance journalist covering the Syrian conflict for McClatchy and other outlets. The report said that “for a long time, the Syrian authorities denied holding him” but that in recent weeks an interlocutor for the U.S. government had seen the journalist in what was described as “a critical step toward securing his release.”
Tice’s father, Marc Tice, said in a telephone interview last week that it was his understanding that no one – American or otherwise – had seen his son in custody. And in describing the State Department’s contact with the Syrian government, he was careful to use the word “discussions” rather than “negotiations.”
“We wish there were negotiations, but there isn’t a party to negotiate with because nobody has acknowledged holding him,” Marc Tice said. “However, we’re gratified that the two governments are discussing Austin, and we continue to seek the help and support of the United States and the Syrian government to locate Austin and safely return him.”
The Figaro report drew attention in part because it revealed the direct U.S.-Syrian talks, a rarity since the Obama administration backed a rebellion against the government of President Bashar Assad that spiraled into civil war. The State Department withdrew its diplomats from Damascus in 2011; the U.S. embassy there closed in 2012. U.S. diplomats have acknowledged channels of communication with Damascus for specific issues, but the Obama administration says it isn’t negotiating with the Syrian government on war-related matters.
“While we are disappointed that Austin has not been seen, we are encouraged by the ongoing discussions between the U.S. and Syria,” the Tices said in a statement posted last week on their website, austinticefamily.com.
No government or group in Syria has admitted to holding Tice.
Tice’s parents, together with the journalist advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, launched a new awareness campaign last month to intensify pressure on the “Syrian entity” holding their son and on the Obama administration to win his freedom. At a news conference announcing the campaign, Tice’s parents said they’d been assured he was alive and not with the Islamic State militant group, though they declined to elaborate.
Austin Tice’s satellite phone, which he used to communicate with his editors at McClatchy and at The Washington Post and his family in Houston, last transmitted in the midafternoon Syrian time on Aug. 13, 2012. The Tices think their son was kidnapped the next day as he began a trip that was to take him from south of Damascus, where he’d been reporting for several weeks, to Beirut, the Lebanese capital.
The only news of him since has been a video that was posted to YouTube on Sept. 26, 2012. It shows an obviously distraught Tice, blindfolded, being led up a hillside by his captors. The video breaks off as he’s heard speaking fractured Arabic, then saying, “Jesus. Oh, Jesus.”
Since that video was posted, the Tices have traveled to Beirut twice in hopes of making contact with someone who can help them win their son’s release.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story inadvertently included an outdated reference to State Department officials’ not commenting. As the first paragraph of the story noted, it was a State Department official who said Tice hadn’t been seen in Syrian custody.