NBC News' chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and two members of his production team, producer Ghazi Balkiz and cameraman John Kooistra, have been released after five days in captivity in Syria.
The network released the following statement early Tuesday morning: “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.”
Via satellite from Turkey, Engel, Balkiz and Kooistra discussed their ordeal on Tuesday morning’s “Today.” The men looked a little tired and unkempt, but otherwise seemed in good spirits despite what sounded like a harrowing five days.
“It is good to be here,” Engel began. “I’m very happy that we’re able to do this live shot this morning.”
From there, he explained that they were traveling with a band of Syrian rebels in what they believed was a safe area when a group of about 15 armed men “jumped out of the trees and bushes” alongside the road. They executed one of the rebels “on the spot,” while Engel and his colleagues were dragged out of the car, blindfolded, bound and moved to a series of safe houses.
“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.”
The men were being moved to another location late Monday night when their kidnappers unexpectedly encountered a rebel checkpoint. A gunfight ensued, leaving two of the kidnappers dead, according to Engel. From there, accompanied by some of the rebels, they made it safely into Turkey.
Engel acknowledged that it had been a “traumatic experience,” but he also used the opportunity to express his concern for those remaining in Syria. “We’re obviously very happy, but there are many people who are still not at liberty to do this kind of thing, there are still hostages, there are still people who don’t have their freedom inside Syria, and we wish them well,” he said.
Engel also said he has a “very good idea” that the kidnappers are members of the Shabiha, a government militia of comprised of Shiite Muslims loyal to the Bashar Assad regime.
NBC News was able to keep Engel’s disappearance quiet until Monday afternoon when, due to reports in the Turkish media, the news began to spread on Twitter on Monday afternoon. At that point, and despite an embargo requested by NBC News, several websites including Gawker.com and Breitbart.com posted stories about his apparent kidnapping.
Thankfully this story has a happy ending -- or at least it does for Engel, Balkiz and Kooistra.