By Mike Brunker, NBC News
NBC News’ Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel and members of his network production team were freed from captors in Syria after a firefight at a checkpoint on Monday, five days after they were taken prisoner, NBC News said early Tuesday.
“After being kidnapped and held for five days inside Syria by an unknown group, NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel and his production crew members have been freed unharmed. We are pleased to report they are safely out of the country,” the network said in a statement.
“It is good to be here,” Engel said during a live appearance on TODAY from Turkey. “I’m very happy that we’re able to do this live shot this morning.”
Engel said that they 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,” 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 [Balkiz, an NBC producer] 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.
Engel said their captors’ plan was to use them to win the freedom of people held by the rebels.
“They captured us in order to carry out this exchange,” he said.
Engel, 39, and his team disappeared shortly after crossing into northwest Syria from Turkey on Thursday. The network had not been able to contact them until learning that they had been freed on Monday.
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.
After entering Syria, Engel and his team were abducted, tossed into the back of a truck before being transported to an unknown location believed to be near the small town of Ma’arrat Misrin. During their captivity, they were blindfolded and bound, but otherwise not physically harmed, the network said.
Early Monday evening local time, the prisoners were being moved to a new location in a vehicle when their captors ran into a checkpoint manned by members of the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, a Syrian rebel group. There was a confrontation and a firefight ensued. Two of the captors were killed, while an unknown number of others escaped, the network said.
The NBC News crew was unharmed in the incident. They remained in Syria until Tuesday morning when they made their way to the border and re-entered Turkey, the network said. They were to be evaluated and debriefed, but had communicated that everyone was in good health.
NBC News said it “expressed its gratitude to those who worked to gather information and secure the release of our colleagues.”
Engel is widely regarded as one of America’s leading foreign correspondents for his coverage of wars, revolutions and political transitions around the world over the last 15 years. Most recently, he was recognized for his outstanding reporting on the 2011 revolution in Egypt, the conflict in Libya and unrest throughout the Arab world.
One of the only Western journalists to cover the entire war in Iraq , Engel was named chief foreign correspondent of NBC News in April 2008. He joined the network in May 2003.
The Syrian civil war began in March 2011, when demonstrators took to the streets to show support for the so-called Arab Spring uprisings sweeping across the Middle East and north Africa and to demand the resignation of Assad of the ruling Ba’ath Party. The following month, Assad deployed the Syrian army to quell the uprising, ordering troops to open fire on demonstrators. But despite the harsh crackdown, Assad’s troops and militias loyal to the government were unable to quell what soon became an armed uprising.
In the intervening months, the security situation in the country has continued to deteriorate amid increasingly fierce fighting between Syrian troops and a loose confederation of outgunned but increasingly emboldened rebel forces. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated in November that more than 40,000 people had died in the fighting.