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CIA director 'held secret talks with Syrian intelligence chief'

The CIA's director held a secret negotiation with Syria's intelligence chief this year as part of efforts to free a US journalist taken hostage in the Arab country five years ago, according to reports.

The phone conversation between CIA boss Mike Pompeo and Syria's Ali Mamlouk occurred in February, the New York Times reported, citing unidentified US officials.

The subject was Austin Tice, a former marine who has reported for the Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers, CBS and other outlets.

While further communications followed, the New York Times reported that the diplomatic effort collapsed after the US accused President Bashar Assad's government of killing dozens of civilians in a sarin gas attack in April and President Donald Trump responded by launching 60 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base.

The Pompeo-Mamlouk call would represent the highest-level communication between the two governments in years.

It is also surprising given widespread allegations of Mr Mamlouk's culpability in human rights atrocities in Syria's civil war. He has been subject to US sanctions since 2011.

The CIA declined to comment.

Mr Tice disappeared in 2002 while working near Damascus, shortly after his 31st birthday.

A month after his kidnapping, a video was released showing him blindfolded, being held by armed men and saying, "Oh, Jesus". He has not been heard from since, although the US believed Syria's government might be holding him.

No nation or group has come forward saying it has Mr Tice. Syria's deputy foreign minister told the Associated Press last year that Mr Tice "is not in the hands of Syrian authorities".

The report of the secret talks came after US officials confirmed a separate set of unpublicised negotiations with North Korea to free another American in captivity, Otto Warmbier.

The 22-year-old University of Virginia student, who fell into a coma during his captivity, died on Monday after he returned to the US last week.

The two "back channel" efforts show the Trump administration's willingness to engage in secret diplomacy with some of America's most intractable foes.

The president has threatened North Korea with the possibility of pre-emptive attack as it nears the capacity to strike the US mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile.

Washington considers Mr Assad's government in Syria a state sponsor of terrorism that provides critical help to anti-US and anti-Israel groups such as Hezbollah.

AP

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