After being ambushed, kidnapped and held captive in Syria for five days, NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and his production crew were freed after a firefight between the kidnappers and a rebel group and were safely escorted back to Turkey Tuesday morning, according to an NBC News report.
Engel and his team were kidnapped Thursday morning shortly after entering Syria, according to an NBC News report. In a live TV appearance with his crew from Antakya, Turkey, on Tuesday, Engel told the Today show that they were driving with Syrian rebels in what they believed was a rebel-controlled area, when more than a dozen gunmen wearing ski masks jumped out of the bushes. “They dragged us out of the car. They had a container truck positioned, waiting by the side of the road,” Engel said. One of the rebels they were traveling with was shot and killed during the confrontation, he said.
Engel and his crew were then taken to several safe houses and interrogation locations. They weren’t physically tortured, but they were bound, blindfolded and threatened, he said. “They made us choose which one of us would be shot first,” Engel said. “When we refused, there were mock shootings.”
Late Monday in Syria, Engel and his crew were being moved when they came across a rebel checkpoint, controlled by the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, according to an NBC News report. A firefight ensued. Two of the kidnappers were killed. Engel and his crew climbed out of the vehicle. They spent the night with the rebels and were escorted to Turkey Tuesday morning.
“It was a traumatic experience,” Engel said. “We’re very happy to be here. We’re in good health. We’re okay.”
NBC News said in a statement Tuesday that the crew was held by an “unknown group.” But Engel said he has a “very good idea” of who the captors were. “This was a group known as the Shabiha. This is a government militia. These are people who are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. They are Shiite. They were talking openly about their loyalty to the government, openly expressing their Shia faith. They are trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guard. They are allied with Hezbollah.”
Engel said the captors hoped to exchange them for four Iranian agents and other Lebanese prisoners. “They were going to bring us to a Hezbollah stronghold inside Syria right now,” Engel said. “We were on our way there when we ran into this rebel checkpoint and had this escape and freedom.”
Reports that Engel’s location was unknown trickled out Monday. The Xinhua news service cited a Turkish TV network and reported that Engel had gone missing. NBC News enforced a news blackout, a frequent practice when a journalist’s personal safety is at stake, which most news organizations, with the exception of Gawker, honored.
Watch Engel recount the kidnapping:
David Taintor is TPM’s News Editor. He contributes to TPM’s Livewire coverage, among other areas. David is from Chanhassen, Minnesota, where, yes, it gets very cold. Reach him at taintor [at] talkingpointsmemo.com