Syria denies holding US journalist Austin Tice

Damascus, Syria — Syria denied Wednesday that it is detaining US journalist Austin Tice or other Americans after President Joe Biden accused the Syrian government of detaining him.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Damascus “denies having kidnapped or detained a US citizen on its territory.”

“The US last week made misleading and illogical statements by the US President and Secretary of State, including baseless allegations against Syria that it had kidnapped or detained US citizens, including former US Marine Austin Tice,” the statement said.

Biden’s comments came last week in a statement released by the White House to mark the 10th anniversary of Tice’s kidnapping, which took place while he was in Syria reporting on the protracted conflict. Biden’s comments were the clearest indication to date that the US is confident that Tice is being held by President Bashar Assad’s administration.

“We know for certain that he has been detained by the Syrian government,” Biden said in his statement last week. “We have repeatedly asked the government of Syria to work with us so that we can bring Austin home.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Tuesday that the US government has been pushing Syria to return every American. Specifically on Tice’s case, he said, the Biden administration has “established extensive contacts — and that includes directly — with Syrian officials and through third parties.”

“Syria has never acknowledged detaining him,” Price said of Tice, adding that “we will not be deterred in our efforts. We will take all possible steps to ensure Austin’s safe return.”

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The Syrian Foreign Ministry denied in its statement that it had secret contacts with US officials about the missing Americans, adding that “any official dialogue with the US government will be open only on the basis of respect for Syria’s sovereignty. ”

In May, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, the top Lebanese security official, met with US officials in Washington as part of US-Syria mediation efforts for Tice’s release. Ibrahim, the head of the Lebanese Directorate-General for Security, has in the past mediated complicated releases of hostages.

In May, Biden met Tice’s parents and reiterated his commitment to work on “Austin’s long-awaited return to his family.”

In the final months of the Trump administration, two US officials — including the government’s top negotiator, Roger Carstens, a former Army Special Forces officer — paid a secret visit to Damascus to seek information about Tice and other Americans who disappeared in Syria. It was the highest-level talks in years between the US and the Assad government, though Syrian officials did not provide meaningful information about Tice.

Tice went missing shortly after his 31st birthday on August 14, 2012 at a checkpoint in a disputed area west of the capital Damascus. In a video released a month later, he was blindfolded and held by gunmen, saying, “Oh, Jesus.” Nothing more has been heard from him since then.

Tice is one of two Americans who went missing in Syria. The other is Majd Kamalmaz, a psychologist from Virginia who disappeared in Syria in 2017.

Tice is from Houston and his work has been published by The Washington Post, McClatchy newspapers and other media outlets. He went to Syria to report on the conflict that began in 2011. The war has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced nearly half of the pre-conflict population of 23 million. More than 5 million of them are located abroad.

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Morue reported from Beirut.

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