McClatchy contributor Austin Tice may be held by Syrians

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 30, 2012 

— Austin Tice, an American freelance journalist covering the civil war in Syria who was last heard from in mid-August, remains unaccounted for and is likely being held by the Syrian government.

Statements in recent days by Czech diplomats, information from Syrian rebel supporters and reports from people inside Syria indicate that the 31-year-old Houston native, who contributed to McClatchy, The Washington Post and CBS News, was detained by Syrian government forces near the Damascus suburb of Daraya, his last known location.

The U.S. State Department says the Syrian government has not responded to inquiries about Tice that were made through official channels and that U.S. diplomats were “working through our Czech protecting power in Syria to get more information on his welfare and whereabouts.” A Syrian official in the United States declined to comment Thursday.

Tice entered Syria in May without a visa – a common practice for journalists attempting to cover the rebel side of the conflict there – and traveled throughout the country with rebel forces, reaching the Damascus area in late July. He remained in that area, basing himself in Daraya, a city of 200,000 southwest of Damascus proper, but had planned to leave Syria to meet friends in Lebanon on Aug. 19 or 20. He last communicated with colleagues on Aug. 13 but did not reveal precisely how he intended to exit Syria.

On Monday, the Czech ambassador to Syria, Eva Filipi, told a Czech television interviewer in Prague that sources had informed her mission that Tice was in detention, though further information had been hard to come by because of an Islamic holiday at the time. The Czechs, who oversee U.S. interests in Damascus because the U.S. closed its embassy there in February, sent a formal diplomatic note about Tice to Syrian counterparts, she said.

“Our sources report that he is alive and that he was detained by government forces on the outskirts of Damascus, where the rebels were fighting government troops,” Filipi said in response to a question about Tice. “Our additional steps were halted by the fact that the report came at the beginning of the final holidays of Ramadan and therefore we had a week off in Syria and some of our contacts were not in Damascus.”

The remarks followed a Czech radio report over the weekend that also said Tice had been detained by the government.

Since then, other information, gathered from a variety of people by the news organizations that publish Tice’s work, has provided support for that version of events.

One reporter who had met Tice previously said that rebels who had been with Tice expressed concern, saying he had left abruptly and not returned. The rebels were worried that he might have been taken captive, according to the reporter, who is not being identified out of security concerns.

Thursday, executives at both McClatchy and The Washington Post renewed their calls for information about Tice and urged his release if he is in Syrian government custody.

“We welcome any news about Austin, after three long weeks without word. He is a widely respected and dedicated journalist,” Anders Gyllenhaal, McClatchy vice president for news, said in a statement. “If he 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.”

“We’re investigating reports that Austin Tice is in custody of Syrian authorities,” Marcus Brauchli, the Post’s executive editor, 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.”

Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra, pleaded for his safe return.

"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 in a statement.

In recent months, Daraya had become a stronghold for the rebels who are battling to topple the government of President Bashar Assad. Syrian government forces began shelling the area in mid-August and then fought pitched battles with rebels there for several days, before the rebels reportedly abandoned their positions late Aug. 24 and Syrian troops entered the city Aug. 25. Hundreds of people died in the violence, though it was impossible to know how many of those were combatants.

Tice, however, apparently had left the area before the fighting began.

A number of foreigners, including at least one other American besides Tice, are believed to be in Syrian custody, according to people familiar with the matter in Damascus and outside of Syria who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic. It could not be determined if all the unnamed individuals remain in Syrian captivity.

Tice, a law student at Georgetown University and a former Marine infantry officer, was one of the few foreign journalists to report from inside Damascus as fighting raged in Syria’s nascent civil war. Tice’s reporting drew on his own military background to explain fierce battles between regime forces and guerrilla groups. The opposition forces he traveled with weren’t immune to his scrutiny; Tice reported on their own apparent battlefield atrocities in addition to the bloody setbacks they endured from the better-armed Syrian military.

Apart from McClatchy and The Washington Post, Tice also contributed to CBS News, Al Jazeera English, the Agence France-Press news agency and the MCT Photo Service.

Tice was keenly aware of the dangers he faced, he wrote in a posting on his Facebook page, but he implored his friends and family to “please quit telling me to be safe.” He wrote that he drew inspiration from Syrians in the throes of conflict, and that “coming here to Syria is the greatest thing I’ve ever done.”

Email: hallam@mcclatchydc.com Twitter: @hannahallam

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