Richard Engel, the chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, has been freed from captivity in Syria—ending days of worried speculation over the award-winning journalist’s fate. He and his crew were freed in a firefight on Monday, according to NBC, and escaped unharmed.
Engel and his crew went missing inside Syria on Thursday, when their communications with NBC’s editors suddenly stopped. The disappearance of one of America’s best-known correspondents had drawn increasing buzz in recent days, in spite of a plea from NBC for a so-called media blackout until Engel and his team were safely out of harm’s way. Word of Engel’s disappearance was first published in the Turkish press and then circulated widely on Twitter, before several American publications—such as Gawker, the Atlantic Wire, and the Houston Chronicle—began reporting on the news yesterday. The latter two had removed their articles before news of Engel’s escape emerged today.
Engel was captured in the Syrian province of Idlib, which borders Turkey and is largely under the control of rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. His disappearance raised the possibility that he had been captured by Islamist rebels—as was the case when two freelance journalists were captured by jihadis near the Turkish border this summer. (The pair, after being wounded during an escape attempt, were later freed by other rebels.)
But in an appearance on the Today show this morning, Engel said he believed his captors were militiamen loyal to Assad. They had been “talking openly about their loyalty to the government,” he said.
Engel added that he believed he and his crew were as bounty for a prisoner exchange—saying that his captors planned to exchange them for a group of Iranian and Lebanese Shiite prisoners who are currently in rebel custody. "They captured us in order to carry out this exchange," he said.
Iran and Hizbullah, the Shiite militia group in Lebanon, are key allies of Assad.
Appearing live from Turkey, where he arrived after being freed inside Syria on Monday, Engel recounted a harrowing ordeal that began when a group of gunmen “jumped out of the trees and bushes” as he and his crew were traveling through Idlib with their rebel escorts. The gunmen immediately executed one of his rebel companions, Engel said, then threw him and his crew into the back of a truck and brought them deeper into the Idlib countryside.
During their captivity, Engel and his crew were subject to what he called “psychological torture,” though never physically harmed. “It was a lot of psychological torture, threats of being killed,” he said. “They made us choose which one of us would be shot first, and when we refused there were mock shootings.”
“I’m very happy that we’re able to do this live shot this morning,” he added.
Engel said that he and the other captives were being driven to a new location on Monday when the vehicle transporting them was stopped at a rebel checkpoint. A firefight broke out, during which two of his captors were killed and the others escaped. The rebels manning the checkpoint were from the Ahrar al-Sham brigade—a formidable rebel group known for its Islamist leanings.
“[A]s we were moving along the road, the kidnappers came across a rebel checkpoint, something they hadn't expected,” Engel told the Today show. "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.”
Engel joined NBC during the Iraq War and has been its chief foreign correspondent since 2008, winning wide accolades for his coverage of conflicts across the globe. He had previously made several trips inside Syria to cover the spiraling conflict, which activist groups say has claimed more than 40,000 lives. Engel shot his last report from Syria—a look at the war-torn commercial capital of Aleppo—just days before his disappearance.
His capture punctuates a particularly dangerous year for journalists in which 67 have been killed so far “in direct relation to their work,” according to a report issued today by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Syria, which has claimed the lives of 28 journalists this year, “was by far the deadliest country in 2012,” the report says. All four of the international journalists killed in 2012—including revered Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin—died inside Syria.