Richard Engel and NBC News Team Freed From Captors in Syria
Tuesday, December 18 2012, 09:03 AM EST
Posted By: Michele Wright / CBS 12
(CNN) -- An NBC reporter and his crew spoke Tuesday of their overwhelming relief after being freed from kidnappers in Syria who kept them bound, blindfolded and repeatedly threatened to kill them during a five-day ordeal.
Speaking from Turkey, Engel described on NBC's "Today" show how he and his crew were seized by a group of masked, heavily armed men shortly after crossing into northwest Syria from Turkey on Thursday.
While the NBC crew members were bundled into a waiting container truck, one of the rebel fighters who had been escorting them into Syria was executed on the spot, Engel said.
Then followed five days during which the team was moved among a series of safe houses and interrogation places, always blindfolded. Although they weren't physically harmed, they were subjected to "a lot of psychological torture" and threats of being killed, Engel said.
"They made us choose which one of us would be shot first. When we refused, there were mock shootings. They pretended to shoot him several times," he said, referring to producer Gazi Balkeez. Hearing a gun fired while blindfolded "can be a very traumatic experience," he said.
Back in the United States, fears for their well-being mounted. The network sought word of where they were but kept their disappearance out of the news for fear of jeopardizing their safety.
While the crew was missing, there was no claim of responsibility, no contact with the captors and no request for ransom, the network said.
Only on Monday did the welcome news come that they had been freed after their kidnappers ran into a rebel checkpoint as they moved the hostages to another site. Two of their captors were killed in the ensuing firefight, but the NBC crew was unharmed.
The team spent the night with the rebels who rescued them before crossing the border into Turkey on Tuesday morning.
"We're very happy to be here. We're in good health. We're OK," Engel told the "Today" show from Antakya, still wearing the same clothes he was held in but smiling broadly.
Engel, alongside Balkeez and photographer John Kooistra, also spoke of how they tried to use jokes to keep each other's spirits up during their long ordeal.
He also pointed out how fortunate they were to have been released unharmed while so many others in Syria remain in captivity or fear for their lives.
NBC has not named all the crew members, but the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were two Americans, a Briton of Jordanian origin, a Turk and a German of Syrian origin in the NBC team.
Conflicting accounts have emerged of who was responsible for the crew's abduction and subsequent release.
Engel said he had "a very good idea" of who kidnapped them, saying it was the Shabiha, a militia loyal to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
He said their captors talked openly of their loyalty to the government and of their Shia faith. The majority of the rebels are Sunni Muslims. Engel said the NBC journalists were told they had been captured with the intention of exchanging them for two Iranian agents and Lebanese held by the rebels.
The Observatory also cited a rebel who participated in the operation to release the NBC team as saying that gunmen loyal to the Assad regime were behind the kidnapping.
However, NBC said earlier the abductors belonged to an unknown group that was "not believed to be loyal to the Assad regime."
And Mohammed Cheikh Omar, a brother of Ammar Cheikh Omar, one of the captured members of the NBC team, told CNN that his brother said the kidnappers were a group claiming to be Free Syrian Army.
Ammar Cheikh Omar said the group that freed the crew was a Free Syrian Army brigade called Ahrour el Sham.
The Observatory named the rebel group that freed the crew as the Freeman of the Levant Brigades [likely al-Nusra].