Austin Tice, a freelance journalist, went missing in Syria in mid-August
A U.S. official says it is believed Tice was detained by Syrian government forces
Tice's family and two news organizations say a video shows Tice alive, but in distress
The video's circumstances are unclear; a U.S. official questions whether it was staged
A video uploaded to YouTube shows a blindfolded American freelance journalist, in obvious distress, weeks after he was last heard from in Syria.
The two news organizations he worked for – McClatchy Newspapers and the Washington Post – both identified Austin Tice in the video, which was posted online to YouTube on September 26.
And the missing journalist’s father, Marc Tice, Monday read to CNN a family statement that said: “Knowing Austin is alive and well is comforting to our family. Though it is difficult to see our eldest son in such a setting and situation as the one depicted in the video, it is reassuring that he appears to be unharmed.”
Still, the circumstances surrounding the 47-second video – including when and where it was shot, as well as specifically who it depicts – remain unclear.
The shaky video, apparently shot on a cell-phone, is set in a remote and rugged area. Men armed with machine guns – and, in one case, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher – are depicted talking loudly as they lead a man – believed to be Tice – up a hill.
The camera then focuses on the man, dressed unlike the others, in tattered clothes and with his eyes covered by a large blindfold.
Clearly distressed, he says a garbled prayer in Arabic. He then adds, “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus,” before adding in Arabic, “Oh Allah.”
Tice’s last public post on Twitter was August 11, when he wrote about attending a pool party with members of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
According to U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, U.S. authorities believe that Tice was detained some time soon thereafter by Syrian authorities – though the Damascus government has not admitted taking him into custody.
The 31-year-old American was believed to have been working in the Syrian capital and preparing to leave at the time he went missing, according to reports.
The video was posted on a Facebook page supportive of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, along with a message saying it will make “many Western media outlets … embarrassed for blaming Syrian security forces for his detention.”
A version of the video posted on YouTube by someone aligned with the opposition, meanwhile, asserted that it “stages (a) fake ‘jihadi’ video” and that al-Assad’s forces are to blame for Tice’s abduction.
There is no obvious indication as to who was with Tice, why he was outside being walked up a hill, or even why the video was shot in the first place. The footage differs significantly from others in recent memory showing kidnappers and their captives.
Nuland, from the State Department, confirmed Monday that U.S. officials had seen the video but questioned its veracity.
“We are not in a position to verify, A, whether it’s him; and B, whether it represents an actual scene that happened or something that may have been staged,” the spokeswoman said. “There are a lot of reasons for the Syrian government to duck responsibility, but we continue to believe that – to the best of our knowledge – he is in Syrian government custody.”
Mark Seibel, a McClatchy spokesman, said he didn’t think that Tice knew how to speak Arabic. The news organization’s vice president of news, Anders Gyllenhaal, used the video to again call for the American to be freed.
“Austin Tice is a journalist, risking his life to tell the story of what’s happening in Syria to the rest of the world,” Gyllenhaal said in a statement. “We ask in the strongest possible terms for his immediate release.”
Tice’s family did not lay blame with anyone in the war-torn country, instead acknowledging the difficulties there and expressing thanks for all those who have offered their thoughts and prayers on behalf of Austin in recent weeks.
“It is evident that the current events in Syria are challenging and difficult for everyone involved,” the family said. “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 returned safely to our family.”
CNN’s Dave Alsup, Samira Said, Roba Alhenawi and Greg Botelho contributed to this report.