BEIRUT (AP) — An American freelance journalist who has been missing in Syria since mid-August has been shown in a video clip posted online, blindfolded and saying "Oh, Jesus" in a frightened voice in the custody of armed men.
The video, which came to light Monday, was the first sign of Austin Tice's condition since he disappeared more than seven weeks ago. Tice, a 31-year-old former Marine, had been reporting on Syria's civil war for The Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers and others.
The Tice family confirmed to several media outlets that their son appears in the video.
In the 47-second clip, Tice tries to recite the Muslim declaration of faith, or shahada, but then switches to English and says, "Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus" and rests his head on a captor's arm.
The Associated Press could not independently confirm the origin or the content of the video clip. Although the footage shows a group of captors dressed like Islamic extremists and shouting "God is Great," the clip lacks the customary appearance of jihadist videos.
The discrepancies have raised concerns that the video was staged to make it appear Tice was being held by extremists. Previous reports have indicated that Tice is in government custody, although President Bashar Assad's regime has not acknowledged holding him.
In the weeks after Tice went missing, the Czech government — which represents American interests in Syria — said it had information that Tice was in Syrian government custody but had yet to get confirmation from Syrian authorities.
The video was posted online Sept. 26, but it went unnoticed until Monday when a pro-government Facebook page called the Media Channel for Assad's Syria posted it with a caption that reads: "To those who accuse the Syrian army, American journalist Austin Tice is in the hands of al-Nusra Front and al-Qaida gangs in Syria."
Jabhat al-Nusra, or Victory Front, and other extremist groups release videos that are clearly labeled with logos and have a higher production value, unlike the shaky and amateurish footage in which Tice is seen. Extremist videos usually are released on jihadist websites, not on YouTube by unknown users.
The captors also are wearing clean and crisply pressed Afghan clothing similar to those worn by militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan — but which have not been seen in Syria.
The Syrian government says the uprising against Assad is being driven by foreign terrorists and extremists trying to destroy the country.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday she could not verify whether the video "represents an actual scene that happened or something that may have been staged."
"You know, there's a lot of reason for the Syrian government to duck responsibility, but we continue to believe that, to the best of our knowledge, we think he is in Syrian government custody," she said.
McClatchy and The Washington Post appealed for Tice's release.
"Austin Tice is a journalist, risking his life to tell the story of what's happening in Syria to the rest of the world. We ask in the strongest possible terms for his immediate release," said Anders Gyllenhaal, McClatchy vice president for news.
Marcus Brauchli, executive editor of The Washington Post, said Tice should be released promptly and unharmed. "Austin is a journalist who was doing his job," he said. "He should be allowed to return to his family."