The whereabouts of a former U.S. Marine who went missing in Syria while working as a freelance journalist remain unknown, an official said Monday.
Austin Tice, who served as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps, was abducted in August 2012 in Darayya, a suburb of Damascus, three months after he entered the country, according to the U.S. government.
The status of Tice and other American hostages in Syria is unknown, according to Stuart Jones, acting assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, who spoke during a press conference Monday morning at the State Department in Washington, D.C.
"On the issue of the U.S. hostages, no, we don't see a connection between the U.S. hostages and what we're talking about what's going on here at Sednaya prison," Jones said, according to a transcript of his remarks.
The assistant secretary of state, who didn't specify how many American hostages are believed to be in the country, was referring to the State Department's belief that the Russian-backed regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has installed a crematorium at Sednaya prison, which is one of the largest military prison complexes in the country and located about a 45-minute drive north of Damascus.
"Beginning in 2013, the Syrian regime modified a building within the Sednaya complex to support what we believe is a crematorium," Jones said. "Although the regime's many atrocities are well-documented, we believe that the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place in Sednaya prison."
More than 400,000 people have been killed since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, according to an estimate released last year by Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria.
The State Department, which warns U.S. citizens against all travel to Syria, believes the Assad regime is responsible for killing as many as 50 detainees per day at Sednaya, Jones said.
After leaving the Corps, Tice pursued his dream of becoming a journalist. His work was published by numerous outlets, including the McClatchy Newspapers, The Washington Post and CBS -- and was awarded the 2012 George Polk Award for War Reporting, according to the nonprofit Reporters Without Borders, which launched a campaign to free Tice.
The U.S. currently has about 500 troops, mostly Special Forces, in Syria as part of a campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.