NBC’s Richard Engel, Crew Freed After Kidnapping in Syria

Team held for five days by unknown kidnappers

Last Updated: December 18, 2012 @ 10:49 AM

NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel and his crew have been freed after being held for five days inside Syria, NBC News said.

The team is now safe in Turkey, and Engel — as well as producer Ghazi Balkiz and camera man John Kooistra — described the ordeal on "Today" on Tuesday morning. Engel said the group were traveling with Syrian rebels in what they believed was a rebel-controlled area Thursday morning when they were stopped and taken captive by kidnappers.

"A group of gunman just literally jumped out of the trees and bushes on the side of the road," Engel said. "There were probaby 15 gunmen. They were wearing ski masks, they were heavily armed. They dragged us out of the car. They had a container truck positioned, waiting by the side of the road. They put us into that container truck.

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"We were with some gunmen, some rebels who were escorting us. They executed one of them on the spot. Then they took us to a series of safehouses and interrogation places, and they kept us blindfolded, bound. We weren't physically beaten or tortured — it was 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."

The kidnappers repeatedly pretended to shoot Balkiz, Engel said.

Last night, they were being moved when their vehicle came to a rebel checkpoint that caught the kidnappers by surprise, Engel said. A firefight ensued, two kidnappers were killed, and the rest escaped. The brigade took them to safety and led them from Syria.

"It was a traumatic experience," Engel said. "We're very happy to be here. We're in good health. We're okay."

Engel said he believed the group that captured his crew was a pro-government militia.

"They were talking openly about their loyalty to the government, openly expressing the Shia faith. They are trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. They are allied with Hezbollah."

Engel said his group was told that their captors wanted to exhange them for four Iranian and two Lebanese allies who are now being held.

NBC said it had no contact with the team or the kidnappers, and that there were no claims of responsibility or ransom demands.

Though Turkish media and some American outlets reported Engel was missing, NBC News asked news outlets not to report on the situation out of concern for the team's safety.

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