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Freed Syrian hostage back in U.S., mom of another hostage pleads for son's release

Peter Theo Curtis addresses reporters outside his mother's home in Cambridge, Mass., on Wednesday. (Photo: Associated Press)
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Journalist held captive in Syria arrives back in U.S.

Peter Theo Curtis addresses reporters outside his mother's home in Cambridge, Mass., on Wednesday.
Peter Theo Curtis in a video released while he was held captive.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) - A U.S. journalist speaking publicly for the first time since his release from a Syrian extremist group said Wednesday that he was overwhelmed to learn that so many "brave, determined and big-hearted" people were behind efforts to secure his release.

But Peter Theo Curtis, who was freed Sunday after 22 months in captivity, declined to talk about his ordeal, saying in brief remarks that he needed time to reconnect with family following his return to the United States.

"I have learned, bit-by-bit, that there have been literally hundreds of people, brave determined and big-hearted people, all over the world working for my release," he told reporters near his mother's home, not far from Harvard University. "They've been working for two years on this. I had no idea when I was in prison. I had no idea that so much effort was being expended on my behalf."

Curtis, 45, of Boston, was released by the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-linked group that is fighting the regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad.

His release came just days after another rival extremist group in Syria, the Islamic State, released an online video showing the beheading of another New England journalist. The Islamic State said they killed James Foley, 40, of Rochester, New Hampshire, in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes targeting Islamic State positions in northern Iraq.

Curtis said Wednesday that he was grateful for the many people, including strangers, who have welcomed him back since his return.

"I suddenly remember how good the American people are and what kindness they have in their hearts," he said.

Curtis promised reporters he would help them tell his story. "I have to bond with my mom and my family now," he said, declining to take questions. "In the future, I promise I will be present and I will help you guys do your job. I'm one of you. ... But I can't do it now."

Matt Schrier, an American photojournalist who escaped last year after being held captive in the same cell as Curtis, has said that the two had been tortured, including being subjected to severe beatings on the soles of their feet that left them unable to walk. He told "60 Minutes" that the captors had suspected Curtis was a CIA agent because he spoke Arabic well. On Tuesday, the CBS news magazine released clips of its November interview with Schrier, saying it had previously withheld them at the request of his family.

In a statement released Tuesday night, Curtis said he was "deeply indebted" to the U.S. officials who worked on his behalf, as well as the government of Qatar.

His family has said the Arab country's involvement was crucial in securing his freedom and that they were told he was freed on a "humanitarian basis" with no ransom paid.

Curtis was released Sunday in the Golan Heights. He was reunited with his mother at Boston's Logan Airport on Tuesday, according to his family.

Curtis' family has said they believe he was initially captured in October 2012, shortly after crossing into Syria.

Curtis, under the Theo Padnos byline, has written for the New Republic and other publications.

He also wrote a 2011 book called "Undercover Muslim: A Journey Into Yemen," which studied the radicalization of disaffected youths. His family says he changed his legal name to Peter Theo Curtis after the book's publication to make it easier to travel in Arab countries.

Curtis' mother, Nancy, said in a statement Tuesday she was "overwhelmed with relief" that her son had been returned to her.

"But this is a sober occasion because of the events of the past week," she said. "My heart goes out to the other families who are suffering."

U.S. freelance journalist, Austin Tice of Houston, disappeared in Syria in August 2012. He is believed to be held by the Syrian government.

Mom pleads for release of another captive U.S. journalist

MIAMI, Fla. (AP) - The Islamic State has also said it is holding American journalist Steven Sotloff captive and has warned that he would be killed if U.S. airstrikes continued.

Sotloff's mother pleaded for his release Wednesday as President Obama weighed options for targeting the extremists' stronghold in Syria.

Shirley Sotloff, who lives in the Miami, Fla. area, addressed the leader of the Islamic State in seeking the return of her 31-year-old son by saying that he shouldn't pay for U.S. government actions in the Middle East over which he has no control, and that as a journalist he cared about the weak and oppressed.

"I want what every mother wants, to live to see her children's children." she said. "I plead with you to grant me this."

Shirley Sotloff cited by name the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has described himself as a caliph intending to lead the Muslim world. She asks him to show mercy and follow the example of the prophet Muhammad in protecting people of Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths.

"You, the caliph, can grant amnesty. I ask you please to release my child. I ask you to use your authority to spare his life," Shirley Sotloff said on the video, which was aired on the Al-Arabiya television network.

Steven Sotloff was last seen in August 2013 in Syria. He was threatened with death by the militants on a video unless the U.S. stopped air strikes on the group in Iraq. The same video showed the beheading of Foley.

The new video by Shirley Sotloff marked the first detailed public comments the family has made since Steven Sotloff went missing. Several U.S. officials, including U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., say they have been working behind the scenes to find out more about him and try to secure his release.

On his Twitter feed, Steven Sotloff described himself as a "stand-up philosopher from Miami. Currently in Libya." He also mentions several publications in which his work appeared, including Time and Foreign Policy magazines.

Before Sotloff was shown on the Islamic State video, only a few friends and family knew he had been taken hostage, said Sotloff's former roommate at the University of Central Florida, Emerson Lotzia. His parents didn't want anyone to go public. Lotzia said he recently spoke to Sotloff's father, Arthur Sotloff.

"He was in the best of spirits, then he was in the worst of spirits," said Lotzia, now a local TV sports anchor in West Palm Beach. "He told me, 'At last I know my son is alive. But look at the situation.' It's killing him, and he's trying his best to stay on an even keel."

Just how Sotloff made his way from Florida to Middle East hotspots is not clear. But Lotzia told the UCF student newspaper, the Central Florida Future, that Sotloff was doing what he loved.

"A million people could have told him what he was doing was foolish, it seemed like it to us (as) outsiders looking in, but to him it was what he loved to do and you weren't going to stop him," Lotzia said. "Steve said it was scary over there. It was dangerous. It wasn't safe to be over there. He knew it. He kept going back."

According to a society notice in the Miami Herald newspaper's archives, Sotloff graduated from Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire in May 2002 and began attending the University of Central Florida that fall. The notice says Sotloff was co-editor of the student newspaper, the Kimball Union, and received an award for student journalism.

UCF spokeswoman Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala said school records show Sotloff was a student majoring in journalism from fall 2002 until fall 2004. She said the school has no record of him graduating.

UCF student newspaper archives show Sotloff wrote frequently for the publication on topics ranging from presidential politics to a fire at a campus-affiliated apartment complex.

More recently, Sotloff published articles from Syria, Egypt and Libya in a variety of publications, including Time magazine, the World Affairs Journal and Foreign Policy. He posted links to many of them on his Twitter feed, and several focus on the plight of average people in war-torn places such as Aleppo, Syria.

James Denton, publisher and editor in chief of World Affairs, said Sotloff was an occasional and well-regarded contributor.

"He is known to us as an honest and thoughtful journalist who strives to understand the story from local perspectives and report his findings straightforwardly," Denton said in an email statement. "He is certainly courageous."

Aside from the Middle East, Sotloff's Twitter feed shows he was a big fan of the NBA's Miami Heat.

"Is it bad that I want to focus on #syria, but all I can think of is a #HEATFinals repeat?" he tweeted in June 2013 before the team won its second consecutive title.

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