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2 missing journalists turn up safe

The Americans are stopped at the Syria- Lebanon border and placed in U.S. custody.

October 10, 2008|Ziad Haidar and Borzou Daragahi | Special to The Times
  • American journalist Holli Chmela, 27,   worked as a freelancer reporter in Amman, Jordan. Chmela and Taylor Luck had planned to be back to work in Amman on Oct. 4.
American journalist Holli Chmela, 27, worked as a freelancer reporter…

DAMASCUS, SYRIA — Two American journalists reported missing in the Middle East by their families were safe here in the Syrian capital Thursday after they crossed the border from Lebanon, were stopped by security officials and interrogated, Syrian officials said.

By day's end, a Western news agency citing an unnamed U.S. diplomat reported that the pair had been handed to American officials in Damascus, though the statements could not be immediately confirmed.

"They are safe and in U.S. Embassy custody," the diplomat told Reuters news agency.

Syria's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said earlier in the day that Holli Chmela, 27, and Taylor Luck, 23, were detained after illegally crossing the Syrian-Lebanese frontier with the help of a smuggler.

Syrian officials contacted Washington's envoy to Damascus, Maura Connelly, and said they would hand over the pair after questioning.

"The Syrian authorities are interrogating the two about the method they used to enter the border without any visas," a Syrian official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The journalists, who work for an English-language newspaper in Jordan, were on vacation in Lebanon when they disappeared Oct. 1. They were due back at work in Amman, the Jordanian capital, on Oct. 4.

Europeans traveling from Lebanon into Syria can purchase visas at the border, but U.S. citizens need to arrange entry permission in advance.

Neither Syrian nor U.S. officials explained why the two tried to cross the border or disclosed information about their whereabouts in the last week.

A source close to the Syrian government said the pair were believed to have been scouting the northern border between Syria and Lebanon for two days before they crossed over from southern Lebanon.

The source, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said the pair paid the smuggler a "significant" amount of money.

Syria recently added troops along its border with northern Lebanon. Some Lebanese political leaders accuse Syria of deploying the soldiers as a prelude to a possible invasion. But Syria says it is coordinating efforts with Lebanon to interdict smugglers.

Syrian troops occupied Lebanon from 1976 to 2005, when a popular uprising led to their withdrawal.

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daragahi@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Haidar reported from Damascus and Times staff writer Daragahi from Beirut.

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