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Mother of missing journalist Austin Tice says US official posing an obstacle to his return

Debra Tice, the mother of missing journalist Austin Tice, addresses a press conference Jan. 27, 2020 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Tice, who spent 83 days in Syria looking for her son, reiterated the belief that he remains alive and is being held, and advocated for his release. Austin, disappeared in Syria in 2012. (Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The mother of Austin Tice, the journalist held captive in Syria for more than seven years, said Monday that while she was “reasonably hopeful” her son might soon be released, she was frustrated by a senior administration official who has been an obstacle to progress.

Debra Tice said she is confident that President Donald Trump is fighting hard for her son’s freedom.

“This administration is pressing it much more diligently than the previous administration,” Tice told McClatchy in an interview. “There is a deliberate, concerted effort to make this happen.”

But, she added, “I think it has not happened because somewhere at the senior level there’s some kind of obstruction.”

A State Department spokesperson told McClatchy on Monday that Austin Tice’s freedom remains a priority for the administration.

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“Recovering American hostages is a top priority for this administration and President Trump continues to successfully secure the release of American hostages,” the State Department official wrote in an emailed statement. “We work tirelessly on each and every case of an American being held hostage abroad and we will continue to do so in the case of Austin Tice until he is back home with his family and loved ones.”

Austin Tice, now 38, was a student at Georgetown Law School in 2012 when he traveled to Syria as a freelance journalist for McClatchy and other news organizations. In August 2012, he was south of Damascus, writing his final stories and planning to leave for Lebanon. He got into a car in Darayya, a Damascus suburb, and was detained at a checkpoint. Five weeks later, a video was released showing him held by unidentified armed men.

No one has claimed responsibility, and no other information has come from his captors. Credible sources say Austin Tice is alive.

His parents have relentlessly pursued his freedom. Debra Tice on Monday at the National Press Club announced the second “Night Out for Austin Tice.” Participating restaurants on April 29 will donate a portion of their proceeds to the effort to secure his freedom. The event last year added about $60,000 to the FBI’s $1 million reward fund, and Debra Tice said, “we are told this effort led to increased leads.”

She and her husband last spoke to Trump at a March 2018 dinner of Washington’s Gridiron Club, a journalist’s association.

Trump was on the podium, and the Tices walked up to him and told their story. “We introduced him to our son Austin and gave him pictures and told him what the situation was and of course we asked him to do everything that he could to bring Austin home,” Debra Tice said.

“He was very engaged with us in that conversation,” she recalled. “We have an assurance from him he will do that.”

“Whatever this obstacle is, it is in defiance of the president which is unacceptable,” Tice said about the official she said is standing in the way of progress. “Why? Why would anyone not want Austin Tice, Eagle Scout, Marine Corps captain, award winning journalist, beloved son, law student at Georgetown — why would anyone not want to do all they can, right now knowing what they can do?”

Tice said she was not certain of the official’s identity.

She said she faced a similar problem in the Obama administration.

What Tice wants now is for a top U.S. government official to talk with Syrian government officials, a breakthrough sought since 2014.

Debra Tice recalled going to Syria in 2014 and 2015 to try to free her son. After weeks of searching for answers she was given a message from a highly placed Syrian official. The official said he would not meet with Tice’s mother, but told her, “send us a U.S. government official with an appropriate title.”

“We have no capacity for understanding why this request has not been met,” Tice said. “Almost six years ago the Syrian government opened the door for a discussion. We believe this is quite possibly the simplest request that can be made in Austin’s situation.”

She remains hopeful and communicates regularly with Washington officials.

“I’m definitely frustrated. Because I can’t imagine we could get this close again and have someone not allow Austin to come home,” she said. “It just seems so immoral.”

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© 2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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