WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A White House official traveled to Damascus for secret meetings with the Syrian government seeking the release of at least two U.S. citizens believed held by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday.

The newspaper, citing unnamed Trump administration officials, said Kash Patel, a deputy assistant to U.S. President Donald Trump and the top White House counterterrorism official, flew to Damascus earlier this year.

The White House and the State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The newspaper, citing Trump administration officials and others familiar with the negotiations, described Patel’s trip as the first time such a high-level U.S. official has met in Syria with the isolated Assad government in more than a decade.

The United States suspended operations at the U.S. embassy in Damascus in February 2012 after against Assad in 2011 began brutal crackdown on protesters calling for an end to his regime, leading to Syria’s bloody civil war.

The newspaper said U.S. officials hope a deal with Assad would lead to freedom for Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and former Marine officer who disappeared while reporting in Syria in 2012, and Majd Kamalmaz, a Syrian-American therapist who disappeared after being stopped at a Syrian government checkpoint in 2017. It said at least four other Americans are believed to be held by the Syrian government, but little is known about those cases.

Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Daniel Wallis

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