WASHINGTON, (AFP) – An American freelance journalist whose whereabouts in Syria were unknown for more than two weeks is being held by the Syrian government, his employers said.
The Washington Post, citing diplomatic sources, said that Austin Tice, 31, was detained near the Damascus suburb of Daraya, where activists say forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad massacred hundreds of people last week.
Czech Ambassador to Syria Eva Filipi, who has overseen US interests in Syria since the US embassy was closed in February, told a Czech television station on Monday that the reporter was “detained by government forces on the outskirts of Damascus, where the rebels were fighting government troops.”
Tice wrote for the Post and McClatchy Newspapers, among other publications, and both outlets called for his prompt release.
“We’re investigating reports that Austin Tice is in the custody of Syrian authorities,” Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli said in a statement.
“If the reports are true, we urge these authorities to release him promptly, unharmed. Journalists should never be detained for doing their work, even — and especially — in difficult circumstances.”
Anders Gyllenhaal, McClatchy vice president for news, said that if Tice “is in fact being held by the Syrian government, we would expect that he is being well cared for and that he will quickly be released.”
The US State Department said the Assad government has declined to respond to official inquiries about Tice, and that US diplomats were working through Czech mediation “to get more information on his welfare and whereabouts,” according to McClatchy.
The newspaper group said Tice entered Syria in May without a visa, a common practice for journalists seeking to report on the war as Damascus issues few press visas. Many correspondents have crossed the border independently.
He then traveled throughout Syria with rebel forces, and reached the Damascus area in late July, setting up base in Daraya, which was pounded for days by Assad regime forces.
McClatchy said Tice last communicated with his colleagues on August 13, though he did not indicate how he planned to leave Syria.
Several foreigners, including at least one other American, have been detained by Syrian forces, the Post said, citing unidentified people familiar with the matter.
Ten journalists have been killed since the Syria uprising began in March 2011, including five foreigners, according to the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders. At least 30 Syrian citizen-journalists have also been killed.
Reporters Without Borders called for the “immediate release” of Tice and all journalists who have been detained or kidnapped in Syria.
Tice’s parents Marc and Debra called for their son to be released safe and sound.
“Austin is our precious son, and we beseech the Syrian government to treat him well and return him safely to us as soon as possible,” they said.
Before becoming a war correspondent in January, Tice served as a captain in the US Marines and was deployed on combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also contributed to CBS News, Al Jazeera English and the MCT Photo Service.
Two more journalists — Palestinian reporter Bashar Fahmi al-Kadumi and Turkish cameraman Cuneyt Unal of the US government-funded television network Al-Hurra — went missing in Aleppo on August 20.
Kadumi’s brother earlier told AFP that the reporter was being held by Assad forces. And a pro-government television channel in Syria showed a video in which Unal said he had been detained by Syrian soldiers.