WASHINGTON -- Austin Tice, an American freelance journalist in Syria who hasn’t communicated with family and colleagues since mid-August, is shown alive and in the custody of armed men in a video posted on YouTube.
In the 47-second clip, headlined “Austin Tice still alive,” he’s shown blindfolded and disoriented, mangling an Islamic prayer before crying out, “Oh, Jesus.” Masked gunmen who act like militant Islamists surround him, calling out “God is great!” and wearing the baggy traditional outfits of fighters operating in Afghanistan.
The video was posted Wednesday but it escaped notice until early Monday, when a link to it appeared on a Facebook page that appears to support the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad. Tips and other evidence previously gathered by the news organizations to which Tice contributed have suggested that he’s in the custody of the Syrian government.
“Knowing Austin is alive and well is comforting to our family,” Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra, said in a statement they released from their home in Houston. “Though it is difficult to see our eldest son in such a setting and situation as that depicted in the video, it is reassuring that he appears to be unharmed. It is evident that the current events in Syria are challenging and difficult for everyone involved. Our wish is that peace and stability can once again return to the people of Syria and that our treasured son Austin will soon be safely returned to our family.”
Tice, 31, whose news articles and photos had been published by McClatchy, The Washington Post and other news agencies, last exchanged email with colleagues on Aug. 13. At the time, he was thought to be in the Damascus suburb of Darayya and was expected to travel to Lebanon to meet friends Aug. 19 or 20.
Tice’s editors stressed that there was too little information to draw any solid conclusion from the brief footage other than that he was captured alive – welcome news after so many weeks of silence. Executives at McClatchy and The Washington Post joined Tice’s family in renewing their calls for his swift return.
“Austin Tice is a journalist, risking his life to tell the story of what’s happening in Syria to the rest of the world,” Anders Gyllenhaal, McClatchy’s vice president for news, said in a statement. “We ask in the strongest possible terms for his immediate release.”
“We call on those who are holding Austin to release him promptly, unharmed,” Marcus Brauchli, the executive editor of The Washington Post, said in a statement. “Austin is a journalist who was doing his job. He should be allowed to return to his family.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday that U.S. officials had viewed the video but weren’t in a position to verify its authenticity. “We continue to believe that, to the best of our knowledge . . . he is in Syrian government custody,” she said.
The FBI has opened an investigation into Tice’s possible abduction, said the assistant director of the FBI’s Washington office, James W. McJunkin. He declined to elaborate.
Terrorism experts expressed skepticism about the video, saying the production quality, style and method of release don’t match videos typically posted by extremist groups such as al Qaida or its affiliates.