Richard Engel, Chief Foreign Correspondent for NBC News,
was freed after being held by kidnappers for five days in
Syria. REUTERS/Dan Nelken/NBC
An NBC news team was freed in Syria during a firefight at
an Islamic rebel checkpoint five days after being ambushed and
kidnapped by 15 heavily armed gunmen, correspondent Richard
Engel said today.
Engel, 39, who along with production crew members Ghazi
Balkiz and John Kooistra disappeared after crossing into
northwestern Syria from Turkey on Thursday, said their
kidnappers were members of a militia loyal to President
Their ordeal ended when their captors, who frequently moved
them bound and blindfolded between safe houses, on Monday
night unexpectedly drove into checkpoint set up by an
Islamist rebel group. Two of their kidnappers were killed in
the ensuing firefight, and the three spent the night with the
Islamist rebels, Engel told the network.
The three were kidnapped when they were driving with
anti-Assad rebels in a rebel-controlled area, Engel, an
American, told NBC's "Today" program from Antakya, Turkey.
A group of about 15 heavily armed men wearing ski masks
"jumped out of the trees and bushes on the side of the road,"
seized the three and put them in a container truck, Engel
The gunmen "executed" one of the rebels escorting the news
team, Engel said. "Then they took us to a series of safe
houses and interrogation places, and they kept us
blindfolded, bound," he said.
"We weren't physically beaten or tortured. It was a lot of
psychological torture, threats of being killed," and mock
shootings, he said. "It was a very traumatic experience."
"We tried to joke around a little and keep our spirits up,"
Engel said, adding that they could peek under blindfolds but
were not allowed to talk.
The U.S. State Department was asked for help in getting the
group back, said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. She said the
U.S. government had been in contact "with various forces
inside Syria" but did not elaborate.
Engel's colleagues spoke of moments of despair as they
worried about their families. "During the ordeal ... I made
good with my maker, I made good with myself. I was prepared
to die many times," Kooistra said.
NBC identified the rebels at the checkpoint as members of the
Ahrar al-Sham brigade, a Syrian rebel group.
The network said it had not been able to contact them until
they were freed. NBC had attempted to keep the crew's
disappearance secret but several media outlets ignored the
There was no claim of responsibility and no request for
ransom, NBC said, but Engel said the captors were government
loyalists who had been trained by Iran's Revolutionary
Guards. "This was a group known as the Shabiha. This is a
government militia. These are people who are loyal to
President Bashar Assad," he said.
The kidnappers spoke openly about their loyalty to the
government and their faith, he said, and were planning to
exchange him and his team for four Iranian agents and two
Shabiha members held by Syrian rebels.
Ahrar al-Sham, an extremist Salafist group that includes a
large contingent of foreign fighters, has been at the
forefront of rebel offensives in northern Syria.
Members of the group have told Reuters the unit wants to
establish an Islamic caliphate in Syria, not a pluralistic
democracy, when Assad is overthrown. But they have not shown
hostility to Western journalists covering the conflict.
Engel has reported on the popular uprisings that swept the
Arab world since 2011.
At least 40,000 people have been killed in Syria's uprising,
which started in March 2011 with street protests that were
met with gunfire by Assad's security forces, and which
spiralled into the most enduring and destructive of the Arab