Missing American journalists under arrest in Syria

American journalists Taylor Luck and Holli Chmela, who were reported missing in Lebanon, are safe and sound in Syria ā€“ albeit under arrest by the Syrian authorities who accuse them of illegal entry into the country.
Syria accuses U.S. journalists Holli Chmela and Taylor Luck of attempting to enter the country illegally with the help of a smuggler. R.R.

BEIRUT, October 9, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The two American journalists who were reported missing in Lebanon yesterday by the U.S. Embassy in Beirut have been located in neighboring Syria today. Taylor Luck, 23, and Holli Chmela, 27, were apparently arrested at the Syrian-Lebanese border for attempting to enter into Syria on "false documents."

Sources in the Syrian Ministry said on Thursday afternoon that the journalists will likely be handed over to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. 

"Both are safe and currently in the hands of the Syrian authorities. They are seeking consular help," an official at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus told MENASSAT over the phone from the Syrian capital. 

Illegal entry?

After initial reports from Al-Jazeera, LBC and other media that the two journalists were under arrest in Syria, the U.S. Embassy in Syria had said it received no information from the Syrian authorities – begging the question why Syria waited so long to inform the Embassy.

The Lebanese authorities said earlier that they had no record of the two officially leaving Lebanese soil.

On Thursday evening, an official statement from the Syrian Foreign Ministry said, "The Syrian authorities arrested two American nationals -- Holli Chmela and Taylor Luck -- because they illegally entered Syrian territory this morning with the help of a smuggler."

Smugglers are known to be active on the Lebanon-Syria border where they use unpaved mountainous roads to bring goods to both countries.

"The security services are now interrogating them to find out how they entered without the necessary visas. The two American nationals will be turned over to the United States embassy in Damascus after the necessary procedures are completed."

The statement also said that U.S. charge d'affaires Maura Connelly had been briefed on the situation.

Luck and Chmela both worked for the Jordanian English-language Jordan Times, but they were on vacation in the region when they were arrested. Luck is a staff member of the paper, and Chmela had just finished an internship there.

They arrived in Lebanon on September 29 on a flight from Amman and checked into the Mozart hotel in the Hamra area of Beirut where they stayed one night.

According to a source in Lebanon's Internal Security Forces (ISF), they told a journalist friend in Beirut that they were heading out the next day for a trip to Byblos and Tripoli in northern Lebanon and eventually to Aleppo in Syria. On October 1, someone used Luck's credit card in an ATM machine in Beirut.

Friends and family started to worry when Luck did not report back to work as planned on October 4, and their cellphones went unanswered.

Lebanese and Western media quickly jumped to the assumption that the two might have been kidnapped by Muslim extremists.

Tense political climate

Syria has recently issued public warnings about the rise of armed Islamic militancy in North Lebanon, and it has been massing troops close to the Lebanese borders. Apart form heavy sectarian fighting between Sunni and Alawite communities in Tripoli, there have been several bomb atacks against Lebanese government troops in the area in recent months.

Last month, the U.S. embassy in Beirut warned U.S. citizens in Lebanon against possible acts of violence against Americans, especially during the first half of October after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

According to sources quoted by NowLebanon.com, Luck and Chmela aroused the suspicion of the Syrian border guards who suspected they could be "members of espionage cells hostile to Syria."

Luck and Chmela were subsequently questioned on charges of "identity usurpation," added the source.

A U.S. Embassy statement last night said "the Syrian government has informed us that they detained two American citizens as they tried to cross into Syria. We are working with the Syrian government now to confirm they are Mr Luck and Miss Chmela and to gain access to them."

(Sources include AP and AFP.)