NBC correspondent Richard Engel and his production crew have escaped captors in Syria after a five-day abduction at the hands of pro-regime militiamen who tormented them with mock executions.
Engel told NBC from the safety of Turkey that he and his team had regained their freedom on Monday after two of their captors were killed in a firefight with Syrian rebels opposing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Engel, 39, is one of the highest-profile US journalists to report from Syria, where rebels have been fighting to overthrow Assad in a civil war that, according to activists, has claimed some 43,000 lives.
He and other unnamed employees and reporters went missing shortly after crossing into Syria from Turkey on Thursday.
Engel said they were traveling with a group of Syrian rebels when 15 gunmen “jumped out of the trees and bushes” and captured them.
The kidnappers hustled Engel and his crew into the back of a truck and took them to an unknown location believed to be near the town of Ma’arrat Misrin, NBC said. They were blindfolded and bound but otherwise unharmed.
In his first interview after being released, Engel said his captors were members of the pro-government militia called the “shabiha”, a fearsome group of plainclothes enforcers accused of several massacres during the uprising.
Engel, a former employee of Agence France-Presse in the Middle East, said they were not physically mistreated, but suffered “a lot of psychological torture” at the hands of their masked abductors, who threatened to kill them.
“They made us choose which one of us would be shot first. When we refused, there were mock shootings… They fired the gun up in the air. It can be a very traumatic experience.”
Engel was told his captors were trained by Iran and allied with the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and that they wanted to exchange them for four Iranian agents, two Lebanese individuals and others held by the Syrian rebels.
“They were going to bring us to a Hezbollah stronghold inside Syria… We were on our way there when we ran into this rebel checkpoint.”
A shootout ensued in which rebels shot dead two of his captors. Engel and his crew were freed unharmed shortly thereafter and made their way back across the border into Turkey, where they arrived in good health.
NBC said there was no claim of responsibility, no contact with the captors and no ransom paid.
The Assad regime is a close ally of both Iran and Hezbollah, and Syrian rebels have accused both of aiding the government’s brutal crackdown.
The Ahrar Al-Sham Brigades said in a statement that they had freed five foreign journalists who were “held by an armed gang connected to the regime.”
The statement named Engel and four others: a Turk, a British Jordanian, another American, and a German Syrian.
A short video clip posted on the group’s website along with the statement shows the liberated Engel sitting cross-legged with his crew, happy and joking shortly after their liberation, presumably still inside Syria.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there had been “an exchange of fire” between Ahrar Al-Sham fighters manning a checkpoint to the west of Ma’arrat Misrin and a group of armed men.
“The armed men fled and left the vehicle, in which the journalists were found.” It quoted “a person who participated in the release operation” as saying that “pro-regime armed men were responsible for the kidnapping.”
Engel has spent the last 15 years reporting on wars, revolutions and other unrest from the Middle East and elsewhere.
He covered the entire Iraq war, from the 2003 US-led invasion until the withdrawal of troops last year, and was named NBC chief foreign correspondent in April 2008.
A fluent Arabic speaker, Engel had also worked for AFP, covering the Palestinian Territories out of the agency’s Jerusalem bureau for more than a year in 2000-2001, including the first six months of the second intifada.
Syria is one of the most dangerous places in the world to report from, with at least 17 journalists killed and 21 imprisoned since the uprising began in March 2011, according to Reporters Without Borders.
The 21-month-long rebellion began as a series of Arab Spring-style protests against the Assad family’s four-decade rule but has since escalated into a brutal civil war, with fierce battles and intensive shelling in major cities.