NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel on Tuesday said he and members of his network crew escaped unharmed after five days of captivity in Syria, where more than a dozen pro-regime gunmen dragged them from their car, killed one of their rebel escorts and subjected them to mock executions.
Appearing on NBC’s Today show, an unshaven Engel said he and his team escaped during a firefight on Monday night between their captors and rebels at a checkpoint. They crossed into Turkey on Tuesday.
NBC did not say how many people were kidnapped with Engel, although two other men, producer Ghazi Balkiz and photographer John Kooistra, appeared with him on the show. Another member of Engel’s team, Aziz Akyavas of Turkey, also escaped. It was not confirmed whether everyone was accounted for.
Engel said he believed the kidnappers were a Shiite militia group loyal to the Syrian government, which has lost control over swaths of the country’s north and is increasingly on the defensive in a civil war that has killed 40,000 people since March last year.
“They kept us blindfolded, bound,” said the 39-year-old Engel, who speaks and reads Arabic. “We weren’t physically beaten or tortured. A lot of psychological torture, threats of being killed. They made us choose which one of us would be shot first and when we refused, there were mock shootings.”
“They were talking openly about their loyalty to the government,” Engel added.
He said the captors were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and allied with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group, but he did not elaborate.
There was no mention of the kidnapping by Syria’s state-run news agency. Both Iran and Hezbollah are close allies of the embattled government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who used military force to crush mostly peaceful protests against his regime. The crackdown on protests led many in Syria to take up arms against the government and the conflict has become a civil war.
Engel said he was told the kidnappers wanted to exchange him and his crew for four Iranian and two Lebanese prisoners being held by the rebels.
“They captured us in order to carry out this exchange,” he said.
Engel and his crew entered Syria on Thursday last week and were driving through what they thought was rebel-controlled territory when “a group of gunmen just literally jumped out of the trees and bushes on the side of the road.”
“There were probably 15 gunmen. They were wearing ski masks. They were heavily armed. They dragged us out of the car,” Engel said.
He added that the gunmen shot and killed at least one of their rebel escorts on the spot and took the hostages into a waiting truck nearby.
At about 11pm on Monday, Engel said he and the others were being moved to another location in Idlib Province.
“And as we were moving along the road, the kidnappers came across a rebel checkpoint, something they hadn’t expected. We were in the back of what you would think of as a minivan,” he said. “The kidnappers saw this checkpoint and started a gunfight with it. Two of the kidnappers were killed. We climbed out of the vehicle and the rebels took us. We spent the night with them.”
Engel and his crew crossed back into neighboring Turkey on Tuesday.