Czechs help secure release of Polish national in Syria

AP News
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Posted: Jan 24, 2017 5:25 AM

PRAGUE (AP) — Czech and Polish authorities said on Tuesday that a Polish national who went missing in Syria has been released.

The Czech presidential office said that Leszek Panek, 54, was transferred from Syria to Beirut, Lebanon, and handed over to Polish authorities on Monday, after the Czechs secured his release from a Syrian jail on humanitarian reasons.

Poland's Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski thanked the Czechs for "locating and obtaining the release of the Pole."

"We are happy he is alive and free," Waszczykowski said.

Waszczykowski's ministry said Panek will be returning to Poland in the coming days.

The Czechs said Panek went missing on Dec. 10, 2015.

Poland's Foreign Ministry said he was arrested by the Syrian army in Feb. 2016 during a documents' check, when he reached into his pocket, which the troops understood as imminent attack. Panek says he was reaching for his documents, according to the ministry communique.

The Czech presidential office posted a photo of Panek, apparently after his release, in camouflage pants and leaning on crutches, surrounded by two smiling women and two men in formal suits.

The Czech Republic is the only EU and NATO country with a still functioning embassy in Damascus and represents the West in Syria.

The Czech statement said that Panek was in satisfactory physical and mental condition.

In Damascus, a Syrian government official confirmed that Panek was released and handed over on Monday, saying that the Polish national had crossed the country illegally and was arrested for that reason.

The conflicting claim about Panek's arrest could not immediately be reconciled with the Czech and Polish statements. The Syrian official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. He gave no further details.

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Associated Press writers Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.