NBC News’ chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and his crew were held five days then freed Monday in a a firefight at a checkpoint in Syria, NBC News announced this morning. Engel, producer Ghazi Balkiz and cameraman John Kooistra were unharmed. They appeared live on "Today" from Turkey.
“It is good to be here,” Engel said on "Today." “I’m very happy that we’re able to do this live shot this morning.” (The New York Times says the crew was four but does not name the other member. The Guardian says that NBC Turkey reporter Aziz Akyavas was among the captured and freed.)
Engel said the crew was traveling with Syrian rebels when about 15 gunmen “jumped out of the trees and bushes” and captured them. From NBC News:
He said the gunmen executed one of the rebels “on the spot,” and later during their captivity they were subjected to mock executions while blindfolded and bound.
"We weren't physically beaten or tortured. It was a lot of psychological torture, threats of being killed," Engel said.
"They made us choose which one of us would be shot first and when we refused there were mock shootings. They pretended to shoot Ghazi several times,” Engel said.
Balkiz said that they had “worked with each other very well… we kept each other’s spirits up” during their ordeal. Cameraman John Kooistra said he had “made good with my maker” and had been “prepared to die many times.”
Engel said their captors “were talking openly about their loyalty to the government” of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
He said he had a “very good idea” about who they were -- members of the “shabiha” militia, loyal to Assad, trained by the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and allied with Lebanon-based group Hezbollah.
In video posted to YouTube, then removed for violating the site's terms of service, a six-man crew – a German, two Britons, a Turk and two Americans, including Engel – pleaded with their respective governments to help secure their freedom.
Speaking to a script prepared by his captors, NBC's Richard Engel said:
My name is Richard Engel, I'm a correspondent with NBC News. I would like to urged the United States government to do what it can to secure our release and to cease its activities in Syria.