WASHINGTON — An American held hostage in Syria by an al-Qaida-linked group has been released after about two years, the Obama administration and a relative confirmed Sunday, days after militants had beheaded a U.S. journalist abducted while covering that country’s civil war.
The U.S. identified the freed American as Peter Theo Curtis of Massachusetts and said he now was safe and outside of Syria. The United Nations said it helped with the handover to U.N. peacekeepers in a village in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights and that Curtis was released to American authorities after a medical checkup.
The administration provided no details about the circumstances of his abduction or his release. It was not known what prompted Curtis’ release.
A cousin of Curtis’, Viva Hardigg, declined to provide details on the circumstances of his release, but said that he had been held by the Nusra Front, which is al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria.
“He seems to be in good health,” Hardigg told The Associated Press. “We are deeply relieved and grateful for his return and the many people who have helped us secure his freedom. At the same time, we are thinking constantly of the other hostages who are still held and those working to help them be freed. We want to do everything we can to support their efforts.”
Secretary of State John Kerry said Jabhat al-Nusrah, an al-Qaida-linked militant group fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, had held Curtis. “Finally, he is returning home,” Kerry said in a statement.
He added that over the past two years, Washington had “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.”
Another American, journalist James Foley, was beheaded by Islamic State militants who released a video last week blaming his death on U.S. airstrikes against their fighters in Iraq. Foley’s captors had demanded $132.5 million (100 million euros) from his parents and political concessions from Washington. Neither obliged, authorities say.
For al-Qaida and some other militant bands, ransoms paid to free kidnapped Europeans over the past decade have surpassed donations from private supporters as a source of funding, according to the United States and Britain.
The British government, like the U.S., adheres to a longstanding policy against paying ransoms to extremists.
A senior Obama administration official said last week the Islamic State had made a “range of requests” from the U.S. for Foley’s release, including changes in American policy and posture in the Mideast.