(USA Today) - NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and his four-man team, who were held captive by an unknown militia group shortly after slipping into Syria on Thursday, have been freed unharmed following a firefight between their captors and a Syrian rebel group at a checkpoint.
“It’s good to be here,” Engel said during a live appearance on TODAY from Turkey. “I’m happy we’re able to do this live shot this morning.”
NBC said on its website and in an emailed statement that the 39-year-old war correspondent and his team — NBC producer Ghazi Balkiz and cameraman John Kooistra — were abducted, blindfolded and thrown into the back of a truck Thursday morning shortly after entering Syria.
They were blindfolded and bound during the ordeal, but not otherwise harmed.
Two of the captors have been killed and the remainder have escaped. There have been no claims of responsibility and no requests for ransom.
Engel said, however, that they endured “lots of psychological torture,” including being subjected to mock executions.
Kooistra said he had “made good with my maker” and had been “prepared to die many times” during the ordeal.
Also freed was a Turkish “fixer” who helped them cross in Syria and a British national identified as an engineer.
An unidentified Syrian group on Tuesday released a video — entitled “Journalists dogs in the trap” — showing Engel, three others members of the NBC production team and a journalist working for CNN and ABC being held captive. The five are shown sitting shoulder to shoulder on the floor in what appears to be a one-room village hut. As the camera slowly pans the group, each speaks briefly to the camera.
The group, which includes a Turk, a Brit and a German, repeat almost identical stock phrases calling on their governments to help free them.
In measured tones, Engel tells the camera: “I would like to urge the U.S. government to do what it can to secure our release and cease its activites in Syria.”
NBC cameraman Kooistra, who lives in New York, is the only one who does repeat the statement, saying only his name and “I would like to go home.”
The video initially was available on YouTube but has since been taken down.
After being held the small town of Ma’arrat Misrin since Thursday, they were being moved early Monday local time to a new location when their captors ran into a checkpoint manned by members of the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, a Syrian rebel group, NBC said.
A firefight broke out and two of the captors were killed, while an unknown number of others escaped, the network said.
Engel said that the journalists were traveling with Syrian rebels when a group of about 15 gunmen “jumped out the trees and bushes” and captured them. He said the gunmen executed one of the rebels “on the spot.”
Balkiz, who they pretended to execute several times, said the crew “worked with each other very well …we kept each other’s spirits up.”
NBC News said it “expressed its gratitude to those who worked to gather information and secure the release of our colleagues.”
According to a source familiar with the events, Engel and the crew had crossed into Syria Wednesday around midnight New York time. At around 4 a.m., the team hit a “panic button” on their GPS satellite unit, alerting NBC that they had run into trouble.
The GPS continued to work, showing their location, but they were not in voice contact.
The crew were eventually taken to a small house where the video was made. There they also put together with a German national working for CNN and ABC. It was not immediately clear when he had been taken captive or where.
The group, according to the source, appeared to be a Shiite group linked to Hezbollah, an Islamic militant group based in Lebanon that gets political and financial support from Iran and Syria . At the time they escaped, the NBC crew was being taken to what they were told was another location to be traded for Iranians being held by Syrian rebels.
Two of the captors riding in the truck with the crew were shot and killed in the firefight as Engel and the others scrambled out and fled.
Engel has been reporting on the Syrian civil war, which has killed more than 40,000 people since March 2011.
The Syrian government has made it difficult for foreign journalists and citizens to report on what is happening in Syria.
Those journalists whom the regime has allowed in are tightly controlled in their movements by Information Ministry minders. Other 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 a severe asthma attack while on assignment in Syria.
Engel joined NBC in 2003 and was named NBC’s 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.
News Source: Associated Press/USA Today