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US knows 'with certainty' that Syria is holding journalist Austin Tice, Biden says

Washington has 'repeatedly' asked Syria to secure the American journalist's release, US president says on the tenth anniversary of his abduction
The 'Bring Austin Home' banner
The 'Bring Austin Home' banner is unveiled outside the headquarters of The Washington Post on 9 August, 2022 in Washington, DC (AFP)

US President Joe Biden said Washington knows "with certainty" that the Syrian government is imprisoning American journalist Austin Tice, who went missing in the war-torn country a decade ago.

"We know with certainty that he has been held by the Syrian regime. We have repeatedly asked the government of Syria to work with us so that we can bring Austin home," Biden said on Wednesday.

"On the tenth anniversary of his abduction, I am calling on Syria to end this and help us bring him home," he said.

Tice was a freelance photojournalist working for Agence France-Presse, McClatchy News, The Washington Post, CBS and other news organisations when he disappeared after being detained at a checkpoint near Damascus on August 14, 2012.

Thirty-one years old at the time he was captured, Tice appeared blindfolded in the custody of an unidentified group of armed men in a video a month later, but there has been little news since.

The Syrian government has denied any knowledge of Tice's whereabouts, but US officials say they believe the American is alive and in Damascus' custody.

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Relations between the US and Syria broke down following the country’s descent into civil war, but US officials have engaged with their Syrian counterparts on Tice. The Trump administration dispatched US officials to Syria in 2020 to try and negotiate Tice's release.

Those efforts were accelerated following a meeting Biden held with Tice's parents in May.

According to the McClatchy news agency, Biden has directed his team on at least three occasions to arrange meetings with top Syrian officials to discuss Tice's case. US and Syrian officials have met and exchanged phone calls, letters and emails. The Syrians probed, asking over the shape of formal negotiations. 

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the "Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will continue to engage with the Syrian government in close coordination with the White House" as part of efforts to secure Tice's release.

With official diplomatic channels between Damascus and Washington lacking, the US has also used backchannels. A number of US allies have pushed to normalise ties with Damascus recently. Jordan's King Abdullah II held a phone call with his Syrian counterpart in 2021, and earlier this year the Syrian leader travelled to the UAE.

Washington has also relied on Major General Abbas Ibrahim, the head of the Lebanese General Security Directorate, for negotiations with Damascus.

The Lebanese spy chief helped arrange the release of US traveller Sam Goodwin, who was detained at a Syrian government checkpoint in 2019, along with a Canadian citizen, Kristian Baxter, who had crossed illegally into Syria from Lebanon.

In May, Biden met with Tice's parents at the Oval Office. Shortly after the visit, Abbas Ibrahim travelled to Washington to discuss ways to potentially secure the American's release.