ANTAKYA, Turkey — NBC News correspondent Richard Engel and his four-person crew have been freed unharmed after being kidnapped inside Syria and subjected to five days of forced moves and death threats.
The journalists were released Monday after a gun battle between their captors and Syrian rebels at a checkpoint manned by the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, NBC said. They crossed safely back into Turkey.
Appearing on the “Today” show Tuesday morning, Engel, 39, said his captors were part of a government militia known as Shabiha, which is loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Engel described the kidnappers as Shiite Muslims, trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and allied with Hezbollah.
The kidnappers told the journalists they wanted to exchange them for four Iranian agents and two Lebanese Shabiha members who had been captured by the rebels, Engel said. That plan was thwarted when the kidnappers unwittingly drove into a rebel checkpoint while trying to move the captives to a new location. In the ensuing gunfight, two of the group’s captors were killed.
“It is good to be here. I am very happy that we’re able to do this live shot this morning,” Engel, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, said on “Today.”
He said he, producer Ghazi Balkiz, cameraman John Kooistra and two other crew members were driving Thursday through what they thought was a rebel-held area in Syria, accompanied by rebel fighters, when about 15 heavily armed men, their faces obscured by ski masks, “just literally jumped out of the trees and bushes at the side of the road.”
The gunmen executed one of the rebels “on the spot,” Engel said. They took the NBC crew to a series of safe houses and interrogation places near the town of Ma’arrat Misrin, keeping them blindfolded and tied up.
Engel, Balkiz and Kooistra, who appeared together on “Today,” said they were not hurt physically but were subjected to “psychological torture,” including threats that one or all of them would be killed.
“They made us choose which one of us would be shot first, and when we refused, there were mock shootings. They pretended to shoot Ghazi several times,” Engel said, referring to Balkiz. “When you’re blindfolded and then they fire the gun up in the air, it can be a very traumatic experience.”
The men, who were under orders to remain silent, peeked under their blindfolds in quiet moments and exchanged jokes and words of support when they felt their guards would not hear. “We kept each others’ spirits up,” Balkiz said.
Added Kooistra: “I made good with my Maker. I made good with myself. I was prepared to die, many times.”
Monday night, as they were being moved to a new location, the group came upon the Ahrar al- Sham checkpoint, triggering the skirmish that led to the captives being freed.
The names of the other crew members in the group were not released. NBC said there had been no claim of responsibility for the kidnapping, and no ransom demand.
Although reports of their capture had circulated on social media, NBC had not confirmed the kidnapping publicly or made any statement about it. Other major news outlets, including The Washington Post, also refrained from reporting that the crew had been kidnapped. News organizations often fall silent when their personnel are taken captive, because they believe the journalists are more likely to be released if their disappearance does not draw media attention.
Hazem al-Shami, a spokesman and fighter for Ahrar al-Sham, said the rebels had been on the lookout for the missing journalists, and had set up checkpoints to search for them. One of the checkpoints was near the town in Idlib province where the hostages were being kept.
“When they saw we’re searching cars, they started to shoot at us,” Shami said in an interview on Skype. “So we attacked them until the kidnappers ran away and the hostages stayed in the car.”
A statement on the Ahrar al-Sham Facebook page said the freed journalists included Turkish, British and American citizens, and one person who was described as Syrian-German. The group was “hosted in one of our houses for the night” before being escorted to the Turkish border Tuesday morning, the statement said.
NBC said the journalists are being evaluated and debriefed. Engel said all were in good health. The network “expressed its gratitude to those who worked to gather information and secure the release of our colleagues.”
The Syrian government has issued very few visas allowing journalists to report on the uprising that began in March 2011, so many reporters enter the country illegally by crossing from neighboring countries. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 15 journalists have been abducted in Syria in 2012. Eight have been released. Of the rest, one is believed to be in government custody, one is believed held with the rebel army, two were believed dead and the whereabouts of three are unknown, the organization said.
The journalist who is believed to be in government custody is Austin Tice, a freelance reporter, who disappeared near a Damascus suburb last August. Tice, a former Marine, had contributed articles to The Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers and other news outlets after crossing the border from Turkey into Syria in May.