By Mostafa Salem, Adam Pourahmadi and Joshua Berlinger, CNN
The Syrian government on Wednesday denied it is holding or has any information on the whereabouts of Austin Tice, an American journalist who vanished a decade ago while reporting on the Middle Eastern nation’s civil war.
Syria’s foreign ministry said in a rare statement that the country “denies that it has kidnapped or is hiding any American citizens who entered its territory or resided in areas under the sovereignty and authority of the Syrian government.”
The comments come a week after US President Joe Biden said that Washington knows “with certainty” that Tice is being held by the Syrian government.
The Syrian government has denied on multiple occasions that it’s holding Tice, but before its statement Wednesday, it had not addressed the journalist’s whereabouts publicly since 2016.
Tice disappeared in Damascus, the Syrian capital, while he was working as a freelance journalist for CBS, The Washington Post and The McClatchy Company.
Tice’s family said Austin was traveling in the Damascus suburb of Darayya to work on one of his final pieces for the summer on August 13, 2012, when he was detained at a checkpoint. He was supposed to leave for Lebanon the following day. The Texas native and veteran of the US Marine Corps was supposed to come home to finish his final year of law school at Georgetown University.
Since then, the only information Tice’s family has received from his captors was a 43-second video that surfaced five weeks after his disappearance. It was titled “Austin Tice is Alive” and showed Tice and a group of armed men, but contained no other information.
In its statement Wednesday, the Syrian government denied it had ever arrested Tice.
10th anniversary of disappearance
Tice was among the first journalists to disappear after Syria’s peaceful pro-democracy protests, sparked by the Arab Spring, were violently crushed by Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Successive US administrations have contended that Tice was alive and being held captive somewhere in Syria. There was no indication he was abducted or held by ISIS, which executed multiple American journalists it kidnapped, including James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
Though the FBI offered a reward of $1 million for information on Tice’s whereabouts, his case has languished for years.
Tice’s parents have worked diligently to bring government and media attention to their son’s disappearance. During a meeting with Biden at the White House in May, the President “reiterated his commitment to continue to work through all available avenues to secure Austin’s long overdue return to his family.”
The Biden administration has had direct engagements with the Syrian government in an effort to secure the release of Tice, according to a source and a senior administration official. There have been a number of direct interactions — none of which took place in Damascus — but they have thus far yielded no progress, the source familiar said.
Last week marked the 10th anniversary of Tice’s disappearance, which his family and the White House used to reiterate their demands for information.
“We know with certainty that he has been held by the Syrian regime,” Biden said in a statement last week. “We have repeatedly asked the government of Syria to work with us so that we can bring Austin home.
“Tice family deserves answers, and more importantly, they deserve to be swiftly reunited with Austin.”
Debra Tice, Austin’s mother, told CNN on Thursday, her son’s 41st birthday, she is happy the President mentioned his name and that it is a sign the administration is ready to negotiate his release.
“I’m just so glad that President Biden has said Austin’s name publicly,” Debra Tice told CNN’s John Berman on “New Day.” “I think that it’s an indication from the President that the United States government is ready to engage with Syria to bring Austin home.”
In a separate statement Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington “will continue to pursue all available avenues to bring Austin home and work tirelessly until we succeed in doing so.”
Among those tasked with bringing Tice home is Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, who secretly traveled to Damascus and met with Assad regime officials in 2020 under the Trump administration. In May of this year, he met with Abbas Ibrahim, a top Lebanese security official, in Washington “to discuss US citizens who are missing or detained in Syria,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said at the time.
Ibrahim, the chief of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate, has played a role in securing the release of American detainees in the past, including Sam Goodwin from Syria and Nizar Zikka from Iran.
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CNN’s Jennifer Hansler contributed to this reporting