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SYRIA: Two journalists missing, U.S. citizens detained during protests

March 28, 2011 |  3:05 am

4484360 Two journalists from the Reuters news agency are missing and two U.S. citizens have been detained during the unprecedented  nationwide mass protests that have posed the greatest challenge to President Bashar Assad since he came to power 11 years ago, media reports say.

Producer Ayat Basma and cameraman Ezzat Baltaji, both Lebanese nationals based  in Beirut, disappeared Saturday night as they were expected to be making their way back to Lebanon, according to Reuters.

The last contact Reuters had with the duo was about 5:30 p.m. Saturday when Baltaji sent a text message to a colleague in Beirut saying, "We will leave now."

Since then, the journalists have been unreachable on their phones. 

Syrian state TV has blamed recent protests and unrest on foreigners, among others. 

Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen Adler said that the news agency is "deeply concerned" about its two missing employees and that a senior editor from the news organization plans to go to Damascus to discuss the matter with Syrian officials.

Meanwhile, another correspondent from Reuters reportedly got tangled up Friday with Syrian authorities who stripped him of his press accreditation. The explanation given was that Khaled Yacoub Oweis had been filing "unprofessional and false" coverage.

Syrian authorities have also arrested a man who has Egyptian and American citizenship for selling videos and photos of events in Syria and for visiting Israel "in secret," according to the state-run Syrian news agency SANA.

The man, identified in media reports as 32-year-old Mohammed Bakr Radwan,  hadn't been heard from since Friday, when he wrote on Twitter that he was watching a demonstration in the Syrian capital's old town, according to a report from Al Jazeera.

A day later he was shown on Syrian state TV, giving what government-controlled media called "preliminary confessions."

SANA attempted to paint a sinister scenario with dark hints of foreign involvement, saying the man had "confessed" to  receiving money from abroad in exchange for sending pictures and video clips from events in Syria and that he had admitted visiting Jerusalem.

It was not clear whether Radwan was being charged with any crimes.

His friends and relatives have called the accusations ridiculous and said the 32-year-old had never visited Israel, said Al Jazeera.

Radwan's cousin, Nora Shalaby, wrote on her blog: "The Syrian regime is just like all the other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East that fabricate stories and arrest innocent people just to cling on to power."

Meanwhile, another American citizen -- identified as 21-year-old Pathik "Tik" Root --  who went missing March 18 has been located in Syrian custody, the Associated Press reported

Root's father told the news agency that his son, who was studying Arabic in Damascus,  had been taken into custody during a protest in the capital.

--Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: Crowds gather outside the main courthouse in the  Syrian town of Dara on March 21. Protesters later set the courthouse on fire. Credit: Reuters