An American writer captured nearly two years ago was released in Syria, U.S. officials said Sunday.
Peter Theo Curtis, 45, was freed from the "clutches" of Jabhat Al-Nusra (the al-Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria), Secretary of State John Kerry said.
Curtis, who was born Peter Theophilus Eaton Padnos, changed his name after penning two books so that he could travel through the Middle East without hindrance, according to a statement by his family, released by the State Department.
While traveling in Yemen, he grew enchanted with youth from the West studying Islam, and wrote about his observations in his book, “Undercover Muslim,” the family statement said. He was also a freelance writer for the “The New Republic,” where he wrote about war-torn Syria. His mother, Nancy Curtis, said in a statement that her son has a “deep concern and regard for the people of Syria.”
The United Nations said in a statement that Curtis was handed over to U.N. officials in Golan Heights, an Israeli-held region in southwest Syria, on Sunday night (local time). After a medical evaluation, Curtis was released to U.S. representatives, the U.N. said.
National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice said Curtis was "safe" and expected to be "reunited with his family shortly."
"My heart is full at the extraordinary, dedicated, incredible people, too many to name individually, who have become my friends and have tirelessly helped us over these many months," said Nancy Curtis.
“Over these last two years, the United States reached out to more than two dozen countries asking for urgent help from anyone who might have tools, influence, or leverage to help secure Theo's release and the release of any Americans held hostage in Syria,” Kerry said.
President Barack Obama was briefed on Curtis' release and expressed his "joy and relief," according to a White House official, who added that the U.S. is working to ensure that remaining American hostages are freed.
The release comes just days after the Islamist militant group ISIS beheaded American journalist James Foley and threatened to kill another American journalist in their custody, Steven Sotloff. Curtis said after getting to know the Foley family during their tragic and similar circumstances, she was “deeply saddened” by the news of Foley’s killing.
“My entire focus right now is on helping the other families of those still being held in Syria, and on taking care of my son," Curtis said.
The Curtis family said they believe the writer was abducted shortly after he crossed into Syria in 2012. The Qatari government told the family that they were “mediating for Theo’s release on a humanitarian basis” without paying a ransom, but the specifics of the negotiation were unknown, Curtis said. “I am very fortunate that I do not have to tell his whole story. He eventually will be able to do so himself," she added.
Curtis was, for a time, held with an American photographer Matthew Schrier, a source close to Schrier told NBC News. Schrier escaped Aleppo in July 2013, more than half a year after being kidnapped, and told the New York Times in August of that year that he and his American cellmate were accused by their captors of being spies.
Debra Tice, the mother of freelance journalist Austin Bennett Tice, who went missing in Damascus in 2012, expressed, in a Tweet, her relief that Curtis was freed. “Today, the Light has pierced the shadow. Thrilled to hear of the safe release of Theo Curtis. Thanks be to God,” she wrote.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimates that 20 journalists are currently being held captive in Syria. “We remain deeply concerned for the safety of all the journalists who remain hostages in Syria,” which has remained the most dangerous country to practice journalism for more than two years, CPJ's Middle East program coordinator, Sherif Mansour said Sunday.