More than a dozen heavily armed gunmen kidnapped and held NBC’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and several colleagues for five days inside Syria, keeping them blindfolded and tied up before they finally escaped unharmed during a firefight between their captors and anti-regime rebels, Engel said Tuesday.
Speaking to NBC’s Today show one day after the escape, an unshaven Engel said he believes the kidnappers were a Shiite militia group loyal to the Syrian government, which is fighting to crush a bloody uprising by rebels. He said they executed at least one of his rebel escorts on the spot at the time he was captured.
“They kept us blindfolded, bound,” said 39-year-old Engel, who speaks and reads fluent 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,” he added.
“They were talking openly about their loyalty to the government,” said Engel. He said the captors were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and allied with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group.
Both Iran and Hezbollah are close allies of the embattled Syrian regime.
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.
Around 11 p.m. Monday night, Engel said they were being moved to another location.
“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.”
The team crossed back into neighboring Turkey earlier Tuesday.
NBC did not identify the others who were kidnapped along with Engel. The network said there was no claim of responsibility, no contact with the captors and no request for ransom during the time the crew was missing.
The Syrian government has barred most foreign media coverage of the civil war in Syria, which has killed more than 40,000 people since the uprising began in March 2011. Those journalists whom the regime has allowed in are tightly controlled in their movements by Information Ministry minders. Many foreign journalists sneak into Syria illegally with the help of smugglers.
Several journalists have been killed covering the conflict. Among them are award-winning French TV reporter Gilles Jacquier, photographer Remi Ochlik and Britain’s Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin. Also, Anthony Shadid, a correspondent for The New York Times, died after an apparent asthma attack while on assignment in Syria.
Engel joined NBC in 2003 and was named chief foreign correspondent in April 2008. He previously worked as a freelance journalist for ABC News, including during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He has lived in the Middle East since he graduated from Stanford University in 1996, according to his biography from NBC. He speaks and reads fluent Arabic.