By Elizabeth A. Kennedy/The Associated Press
BEIRUT — More than a dozen heavily armed pro-regime gunmen kidnapped NBC’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and several colleagues for five days inside Syria, threatening them with mock executions and keeping them bound and blindfolded until they escaped unharmed during a firefight between their captors and rebels, Engel said Tuesday.
Speaking to NBC’s “Today” show one day after the escape, an unshaven Engel said the kidnappers executed at least one of his rebel escorts on the spot at the time he was captured. He also said he believes the kidnappers were a Shiite militia group loyal to the Syrian government, which is fighting a deadly civil war against rebels.
“They kept us blindfolded, bound,” said 39-year-old Engel, who speaks and reads 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,” Engel said. He said the captors were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and allied with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group.
“They captured us in order to carry out this exchange,” he said.
Both Iran and Hezbollah are close allies of the embattled Syrian regime, which has become a global pariah since it unleashed its forces in March 2011 to crush mostly peaceful protests against the regime. The bloody crackdown on protests led many in Syria to take up arms against the government, and the conflict has morphed into a civil war.
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, Engel said he and the others were being moved to another location in northern Idlib province.
“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.