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American held in Syria for almost two years is released

By Dana Ford and Steve Almasy, CNN
updated 6:06 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Please know that we will be eternally grateful," his mother says
  • Peter Theo Curtis is a freelance journalist and author
  • He had been held for nearly two years by Islamist militants
  • U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights facilitated his handover

(CNN) -- An American journalist held in Syria by Islamist rebels for close to two years was released Sunday.

Peter Theo Curtis, 45, is believed to have been captured in October 2012 and held by al-Nusra Front, a Syrian rebel group with ties to al Qaeda.

"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 Curtis' mother, Nancy Curtis. "Please know that we will be eternally grateful."

The United Nations said Curtis was handed over to U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, which is under Israeli government control, and was given a medical checkup.

Alan Gross, at right with Rabbi Arthur Schneier, has been in Cuban custody since December 2009, when he was jailed while working as a subcontractor. Cuban authorities say Gross tried to set up illegal Internet connections on the island. Gross says he was just trying to help connect the Jewish community to the Internet. Former President Jimmy Carter and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have both traveled to Cuba on Gross' behalf. On December 17, Gross was released from Cuban prison. Alan Gross, at right with Rabbi Arthur Schneier, has been in Cuban custody since December 2009, when he was jailed while working as a subcontractor. Cuban authorities say Gross tried to set up illegal Internet connections on the island. Gross says he was just trying to help connect the Jewish community to the Internet. Former President Jimmy Carter and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have both traveled to Cuba on Gross' behalf. On December 17, Gross was released from Cuban prison.
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Photos: Americans detained abroad Photos: Americans detained abroad
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White House national security adviser Susan Rice said Curtis was safe, no longer in Syria and expected to be reunited with his family shortly.

He was on his way to Tel Aviv, according to a senior administration official.

Nancy Curtis spoke to her son briefly by phone Sunday.

"He sounded so happy and excited to be free," she said. He told her "I can't believe they let me out."

His cousin Viva Hardigg said, "We've heard that his health appears good. That was very encouraging."

The United States was not involved in negotiations for his release but was aware of private efforts to secure the release, two U.S. law enforcement officials said. It's not known whether any ransom was paid, the officials said.

Curtis' release comes just five days after ISIS militants released a video of one of its militants beheading American journalist James Foley.

"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 (al-Nusra Front)," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.

When asked about the death of James Foley, an American journalist killed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria last week, Nancy Curtis began to weep. "I feel so bad for their family. Diane (Foley's mother) has become a good friend of mine, and I'm just so heartbroken for their loss."

Author and journalist

CNN obtained two videos that appear to have been recorded during the late stages of Curtis' captivity. In one, a gun is pointed at his head, and Curtis speaks rapidly, as if under duress.

He gives his name and the date and says he is a journalist from Boston.

Curtis is an author and freelance reporter who writes under the name Theo Padnos. He contributed articles about the Middle East to various publications, including the New Republic, The Huffington Post and the London Review of Books.

He has also published two books: "My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun," a memoir about teaching literature to young offenders at a correctional facility in Vermont, and "Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen," which investigates Islamic extremism.

He was born in Atlanta and graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont. Curtis holds a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Massachusetts and is fluent in French and Arabic, according to a statement from his family. He also speaks German and Russian.

"Theo has a deep concern and regard for the people of Syria," his mother said, "which is why he returned during the war. He wanted to help others and to give meaning and to bear witness to their struggles.

"I am very fortunate that I do not have to tell his whole story. He eventually will be able to do so himself."

President Barack Obama has been briefed on Curtis' release and "shares in the joy and relief that we all feel now that Theo is out of Syria and safe," said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.

"But we continue to hold in our thoughts and prayers the Americans who remain in captivity in Syria -- and we will continue to use all of the tools at our disposal to see that the remaining American hostages are freed."

Former cellmate speaks

In August, CNN spoke to Curtis' former cellmate in Syria, Matthew Schrier. They were locked up together in six prisons before Schrier broke free by climbing through a window.

"I took apart the screen, pushed the sandbags aside, and I got stuck, around my waist, so I had to reach in. I unbuckled my pants, and as soon as I unbuckled my pants I shot right out," Schrier said.

Curtis wasn't as lucky. He got stuck. Schrier said he tried to get Curtis out, but he simply didn't fit, and so Schrier left, promising to get help.

"It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do," Schrier said.

"It's hard to move on, because he's still there. You know, it hasn't ended yet 100%," he said then. "I'm not going to have closure until he's home."

Fears heightened for Western hostages

Why freelance reporting is so dangerous

Foley's murder: 'A message to Britain'

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh, Jim Acosta, Mary Grace Lucas, Evan Perez, Jethro Mullen, Lawrence Crook III and Deanna Hackney contributed to this report.

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