American held in Syria freed, transferred to Israel

US says Peter Theo Curtis is safe after being held by Islamists; UN facilitates handover in Golan Heights

Peter Theo Curtis (photo credit: Screenshot al-Jazeera)
Peter Theo Curtis (photo credit: Screenshot al-Jazeera)

WASHINGTON — The US government says an American held hostage for about two years by an al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria has been released.

The United Nations said in a statement that Peter Theo Curtis of Massachusetts was handed over to UN forces in the Golan Heights at 6:40 p.m., underwent a medical examination, and was handed over to US representatives.

Israel’s Army Radio said Monday afternoon that he was believed to be at a UN facility in Israel.

National security adviser Susan Rice said Curtis is now safe outside of Syria.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Curtis was held by Jabhat al Nusra, an al-Qaeda-linked militant group fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“For two years this young American has been separated from his family,” Kerry said in a statement. “Finally he is returning home.”

“Over these last two years, the United States reached out to more than two dozen countries asking for urgent help from anyone who might have tools, influence or leverage to secure Theo’s release and the release of any Americans held in Syria,” he said.

The Obama administration released no details about the circumstances of his abduction or his 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.”

The news came days after the Islamic State group posted a web video showing the murder of James Foley, an American journalist who was kidnapped in 2012 while covering the Syrian uprising.

Foley’s captors had demanded $132.5 million (100 million euros) from his parents and political concessions from Washington. Neither obliged, authorities say.

The group said the killing was in retaliation for US airstrikes in northern Iraq.

For al-Qaeda 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 US, 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 US for Foley’s release, including changes in American policy and posture in the Mideast.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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