WASHINGTON (AP) — The Syrian government has released an American citizen who was captured and detained after entering the war-wracked country about four years ago, the State Department said Friday.
Spokesman Mark Toner declined to identify the American due to privacy considerations, but U.S. officials told The Associated Press that he is Kevin Patrick Dawes, a 33-year-old freelance photographer from San Diego who was captured in 2012.
Toner described the U.S. citizen as a "detainee," not a "hostage," and said he was released in the past few days. He declined to provide information on why he was initially detained.
The Russian foreign ministry said Dawes was flown to Moscow on April 1 and turned over to the U.S. Embassy there.
"Some time ago, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin with a personal request for assistance in the search for U.S. citizens who could be in Syrian territory," Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement.
"As a result of this work, it was found out that one of them — Kevin Dawes — was being held under arrest for illegal entry into the country and other offenses. In response to our appeal, the Syrian authorities have found it possible to show clemency and release the American on humanitarian grounds."
The statement said Russia, which has been backing the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the civil war that now is in its sixth year, hopes Washington appreciates the gesture of the Syrian government in Damascus.
Toner thanked Russia and Czech officials, who represent U.S. diplomatic interests in Syria, for helping the United States gain access to Dawes and seek his release.
"We are appreciative of efforts on the part of the Russian government that it undertook on behalf of this U.S. citizen," Toner said, adding that the Czechs offered consular support on the ground that American officials would have wanted to provide.
He said the U.S. continues to work through the Czech officials in Syria to get information on the welfare and whereabouts of Austin Tice and an unknown number of other U.S. citizens missing or detained in Syria.
Tice, of Houston, Texas, disappeared in August 2012 while covering Syria's civil war. A video released a month later showed the journalist, blindfolded and held by armed men, saying, "Oh, Jesus." He had not been heard from since then.
Asked if the U.S. dealt directly with Syrian officials in seeking the release of Dawes, Toner said: "We have also been in direct periodic contact with the Syrian government regarding consular issues in general and American citizens detained in Syria."
Toner said he did not know of anything the Syrian government received in exchange for freeing the U.S. citizen. "I'm not aware that there was any tit-for-tat exchange," he said.
The Washington Post first reported the release of Dawes and quoted FBI officials as saying that he was taken after crossing into Syria from Turkey. The Post said Dawes recently was permitted to call his family and receive packages.
Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper in Baghdad, Matthew Lee in Washington and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.