Middle East

Blinken says US is ‘engaged with Syria’ in efforts to free missing journalist Austin Tice

By Jennifer Hansler, CNN

CNN  —  The United States is “engaged with Syria, engaged with third countries” to try to bring detained journalist Austin Tice home, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.

“We are extensively engaged with regard to Austin, engaged with Syria, engaged with third countries, seeking to find a way to get him home. And we’re not going to relent until we do,” Blinken said in remarks at a Washington Post event on World Press Freedom Day.

Tice was taken hostage in Syria in 2012. President Joe Biden declared last year that the US government knows “with certainty that he has been held by the Syrian regime” and called on Damascus to cooperate on efforts to release him.

The government of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has not publicly acknowledged they are detaining Tice. The US does not have diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime and has voiced opposition to rapprochement with Assad.

Blinken did not provide details about the engagements to bring Tice home. White House and State Department officials would not confirm a report from the Wall Street Journal that US officials had held talks with Syrian officials in Oman.

“We cannot confirm any specific meetings past or present. As you know in general meetings and negotiations to secure the release of wrongfully detained Americans, that is incredibly sensitive,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a White House briefing. “We want to be really, really careful and mindful and don’t want to confirm any specific conversation from the past or in the present.”

CNN reported last August that the Biden administration had direct engagements with the Syrian government in an effort to secure Tice’s release. In 2020 under the Trump administration, Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens secretly traveled to Damascus and met with Assad regime officials.

Austin Tice’s mother Debra Tice told CNN Monday that she thinks that the administration is committed to bringing her son home but “they stumble over what needs to be done.” She said she had no doubt that her son would walk free.

Biden paid tribute to Austin Tice and other wrongfully detained Americans, including Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan in Russia, in remarks at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday.

A number of family members of wrongfully detained Americans – many of whom have joined forces in an organization called the “Bring Our Families Home” campaign – as well as those who had been freed from detention gathered in Washington, DC, this week to seek a meeting with the president and call on the US government to do more to secure the release of their loved ones.

“Although our loved ones are wrongfully detained and held hostage abroad, including China, including Russia, including Iran, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela, our voices are stronger together,” said Harrison Li, the son of Kai Li, who is detained in China.

“Although each case has its own idiosyncrasies, we all need the same things: for President Biden to meet with us, and to use all tools to bring them home,” he said.

“We have asked for a meeting with the president for so long now that I frankly don’t know how else to ask or what else to say,” Hannah Sharghi, whose father Emad Shargi is detained in Iran, said at a news conference Wednesday.

CNN’s Michael Conte and Christian Sierra contributed to this report.

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