- Journalism - Lebanon - Syria - USA
AFP - The United States said Syria released two young American journalists into US custody in Damascus late Thursday after it arrested them for allegedly entering Syria illegally.
Gordon Duguid, a State Department spokesman, told reporters in Washington that the handover occurred when the US charge d'affaires in Damascus, Maura Connelly, was summoned to the Syrian foreign ministry.
"While there, the two American citizens being detained were released into American custody," Duguid said, adding the pair are "now in the US embassy" in the Syrian capital and are in "good shape."
It was not possible to immediately obtain comment from officials in Damascus, as it was long after business hours.
The Syrian authorities had said earlier that they planned to question Americans Holli Chmela and Taylor Luck about how they entered Syria without the necessary visas, but planned to release them to US officials.
The pair "illegally entered Syrian territory this morning with the help of a smuggler," the Syrian foreign ministry said in a statement.
The security services were questioning the pair who would be turned over to the US embassy "after the necessary procedures are completed," it added.
A US embassy statement said the "Syrian government has informed us that they detained two American citizens as they tried to cross into Syria" and that the embassy had been trying to gain access to them.
The embassy and State Department declined to give more information about the case for privacy act reasons.
In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood said "we are greatly relieved that the two are safe."
He said the US staff in Beirut, Damascus and Washington "worked actively to pursue all possible leads in our efforts to locate Miss Chmela and Mr Luck as soon as they were reported missing."
In a statement, Chmela's family said they were "relieved to hear the good news that Holli and her travel companion Taylor Luck are known to be safe and in the hands of the Syrian government."
"We look forward to their prompt release so they can return to their families as soon as possible," according to the statement distributed by the State Department.
Luck, 23, and Chmela, 27, had been on holiday when they dropped out of sight.
A Lebanese official said the pair arrived in Lebanon on September 29 and checked out of their Beirut hotel the following day. Someone withdrew money with Luck's credit card from an ATM machine in Beirut on October 1, he said.
Neither had been reachable on their mobile phones.
The US embassy in Lebanon said on Wednesday that they had reportedly left Beirut headed for Byblos and Tripoli in northern Lebanon, from where they planned to cross into Syria before returning to Jordan.
Reporters at the Jordan Times newspaper told AFP that Luck was a staff member and Chmela, whose Facebook page links her to the New York Times, had just completed an internship there.
Last month, the US embassy in Beirut warned US citizens in Lebanon of possible acts of violence against Americans, especially during the first half of October after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.