BEIRUT — An American journalist abducted by rebels in Syria was freed Sunday after nearly two years in captivity, but his release appears to have little bearing on the fates of other hostages under threat of death from their kidnappers because of the U.S. airstrikes in Iraq.
The tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar played a key role in negotiating the release of Peter Theo Curtis, who went missing in October 2012 shortly after he crossed the Turkish border into northern Syria, U.S. officials and a statement from his family said. He was handed over to the United Nations in Syria on Sunday and is now safely out of the country, U.S. officials said.
Curtis, 45, had been kidnapped by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, according to the State Department, and he was not believed to be connected to the American hostages held by the more extremist Islamic State group.
His release came a few days after the Islamic State issued a chilling video announcing that it had beheaded U.S. journalist James Foley and threatening the same fate for another hostage, Steven Sotloff, if the United States does not call off its airstrikes in Iraq.
The U.S. military said the airstrikes continued Sunday, albeit at a reduced tempo, with one attack near the Kurdistan regional capital, Irbil, and another in the vicinity of the Mosul Dam, which was recaptured from Islamic State forces last week.
Curtis’s captors with Jabhat al-Nusra have been at war with the Islamic State, which holds three other U.S. hostages, for control of parts of Syria in recent months. The whereabouts of a fourth American hostage, journalist Austin Tice, are not known, but he is not believed to be with the Islamic State, U.S. officials say.
Curtis’s release was nonetheless welcomed by U.S. officials as a relief from the grim news of recent days.
“Particularly after a week marked by unspeakable tragedy, we are all relieved and grateful knowing that Theo Curtis is coming home after so much time held in the clutches of Jabhat al-Nusra,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in a statement.
The United States had sought help from more than two dozen countries in an effort to secure Curtis’s release, in close coordination with his mother, Kerry said. Details of the kidnapping had been kept under wraps at the request of the family in order to facilitate the negotiations.
Curtis’s family issued a statement expressing gratitude to the U.S. government and to Qatar for helping secure Curtis’s freedom.
“Please know that we will be eternally grateful,” said his mother, Nancy Curtis, of Cambridge, Mass.
“We are so relieved that Theo is healthy and safe and that he is finally headed home after his ordeal, but we are also deeply saddened by the terrible, unjustified killing last week of his fellow journalist, Jim Foley, at the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS,” she said, using another name for the Islamic State group.
Qatar has been central to a number of hostage releases in Syria in recent months, a sign of its influence over at least some of the rebel groups battling to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Many of the releases have involved captives held by Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the groups Qatar has been accused of funding in the past, although it has denied the allegations.
In two cases negotiated by Qatar last year, Lebanese captives and a group of Syrian nuns in rebel custody were exchanged for prisoners held by the Assad government.
Qatar has also played a part in negotiations for the release of other Westerners captured by Syrian rebels, in some instances involving ransoms, according to a Lebanese security official who is familiar with the negotiation process.
Hopes for Curtis’s release were first raised in June, when Al Jazeera obtained a video in which he appeared to be in good health and stated that he was being held captive in Syria.
Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, denied that any ransom was paid on behalf of Curtis, either by the U.S. government or by a third party.
“The U.S. government does not make concessions to terrorists, which includes paying ransom. We did not do so in this case,” she said. “We also do not support any third party paying ransom, and did not do so in this case. We are unequivocal in our opposition to paying ransom to terrorists.”
Harf said Curtis’s release followed a “direct request from the Curtis family itself to the Qatari government for its assistance.” She declined to give further details.
Curtis had written about Syria and Yemen under his birth name, Theo Padnos, in publications including the New Republic, the Huffington Post and the London Review of Books.
He spoke Arabic, wrote a book about Yemen and spent the years 2007-2010 living in Syria, before the revolt against Assad. He returned again to Damascus after the 2011 uprising, writing an article for the New Republic about the underpinnings of the revolt that was critical of the government.
In the fall of 2012 he went to Turkey, the access point for journalists seeking to enter rebel-held northern Syria, and was last seen in October 2012 in the Turkish border town of Antakya, after telling colleagues that he planned to teach English in Syria.
His family said he was kidnapped by Jabhat al-Nusra shortly after he crossed the border, caught up in the maelstrom of Syria’s escalating war just as extremist groups were starting to eclipse more moderate rebels in the raging battle for control of the country.
Colleagues said he was held for much of the time with Matthew Schrier, an American photojournalist who escaped last year from his cell in the rebel-held portion of Aleppo.
A United Nations statement said Curtis had been handed over to U.N. officials on the opposite side of the country, in Quneitra, in the Syrian-held portion of the Golan Heights, bordering Israel.
According to the Curtis family statement, Curtis remained in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra or splinter groups throughout his ordeal.
National security adviser Susan E. Rice said the Obama administration “will continue to use all of the tools at our disposal to see that the remaining American hostages are freed.”
On Sunday, the British ambassador to the United States said authorities are “close” to identifying the Islamist militant who beheaded Foley last week.
Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” and NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Ambassador Peter Westmacott said advanced voice-recognition technology is helping authorities identify the man, who spoke with a British accent in the Islamic State video.
The FBI is looking at a number of British jihadists who might have killed Foley, including London rapper Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, who traveled to Syria to fight with ISIS, a senior U.S. official said. Bary’s father, a citizen of Egypt, is suspected of playing a role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa. He was extradited to New York in 2012 to face trial, charged with conspiring with members of al-Qaeda to kill U.S. nationals and attack American facilities abroad.
Goldman reported from Washington. Katie Zezima and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.