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U.S. hostage in Syria since ’12 is freed

An American freelance journalist held captive for nearly two years by al-Qaida’s branch in Syria was freed Sunday in a handover to U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights.

The freelance journalist, Peter Theo Curtis, 45, of Boston, was abducted near the Syria-Turkey border in October 2012. He was held by the Nusra Front, the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, which has broken with the even more radical Islamic State. Another American journalist, James W. Foley, who was kidnapped in Syria the following month, was beheaded last week by the Islamic State, which posted the images of his death on YouTube.

The United Nations confirmed in a statement on its website that Curtis was transferred to the custody of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Al-Rafid village, in the disputed Golan Heights region straddling Syria and Israel, at 6:40 p.m. local time.

“After receiving a medical checkup, Mr. Curtis was handed over to representatives of his government,” the statement said.

Curtis’ extended family released a statement thanking the governments of the United States and Qatar and “the many individuals, private and public, who helped negotiate the release of our son, brother and cousin.” Nancy Curtis, the journalist’s mother, said in the statement that his release was secured without any ransom payment, one of the primary motivations for such abductions by the Nusra Front, the Islamic State and affiliated groups.

“While the family is not privy to the exact terms that were negotiated, we were repeatedly told by representatives of the Qatari government that they were mediating for Theo’s release on a humanitarian basis without the payment of money,” Nancy Curtis said.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry welcomed the news. “Particularly after a week marked by unspeakable tragedy, we are all relieved and grateful knowing that Theo Curtis is coming home,” he said in a statement. “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.”

The Nusra Front and the Islamic State were once a single organization, but the groups split over ideological and tactical differences, with the Islamic State going its own way and Nusra remaining loyal to al-Qaida’s central leadership. One of the issues that divided them was the acceptable level of brutality. Since the split, al-Qaida has criticized the unrestrained attacks by the Sunni militants of the Islamic State against Shiite Muslims, as well as their attacks on Christian villages.

Three Americans – two men and a woman – are still believed to be captives of the Islamic State. The group has threatened to behead one of them, the journalist Steven J. Sotloff, if the United States does not meet its demands, including stopping airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Iraq.

Sunday, the Islamic State gained more ground in eastern Syria, capturing a major government military airport in Raqqa. The move completed their takeover of the entire province and dealt a humiliating blow to President Bashar Assad.

The victory is further evidence that the Islamic State is determined to widen its grip on the region. Since it launched its assaults in June, the Islamic State has captured half of Iraq and one-third of Syria and operates an Islamic caliphate armed with U.S. weapons and financed by spoils from its lightning raids.

The official Syrian news agency Sunday evening conceded the loss of the Tabka military base with a terse and euphemistic report that said Syrian forces had performed “a successful regrouping after evacuating” the airport.

Journalist Rafik Lutf, who is close to the Assad regime, earlier reported the loss of the airport and the death of about 150 soldiers. The Islamic State reportedly beheaded a number of captured Syrian soldiers Sunday and put their severed heads on display in the city of Raqqa.

The New York Times and McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.