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Richard Engel, NBC News foreign affairs reporter, escapes captors

NBC News foreign affairs correspondent Richard Engel and colleagues have escaped unharmed from their pro-regime captors in Syria. The escape followed a five-day ordeal that began with a roadside ambush and ended during a gun battle Monday night between the captors and rebels.

Early Tuesday morning, NBC News confirmed the release, ending a media blackout during which news organizations inquiring about the missing group were asked not to report on their capture for fear of jeopardizing their safety. NBC did not say how many were kidnapped, but two other former captives, producer Ghazi Balkiz and cameraman John Kooistra, appeared on the "Today" show with Engel. Another crew member, Aziz Akyavas of Turkey, also escaped. It was not confirmed whether everyone was accounted for.

Speaking on the show, Engel said he and his crew were driving through what they believed was a rebel-controlled area in Syria on Thursday when "a group of gunmen literally jumped out of the trees and bushes -- about 15 gunmen. They were wearing ski masks, they were heavily armed, and they dragged us out of the car." He said they "executed" a rebel they were traveling with.

He said the kidnappers were members of a militia loyal to President Bashar al-Assad amid the deadly Syrian civil war. He said the captors also were allied with Hezbollah in Lebanon, trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and hoped to exchange the NBC crew for four Iranian agents.

Engel said he and the others were blindfolded and taken to various locations over the next several days. "They took us to a series of safe houses and interrogation places, and they kept us blindfolded, bound," Engel said. "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."

Then, en route to another location Monday, they came upon a rebel checkpoint -- "something they hadn't expected," Engel said. Two of his captors were killed during a gun battle with the rebels, who escorted them later across the border into Turkey, he said.

Syria's state-run news agency has not mentioned the kidnapping.

Engel, 39, joined NBC in 2003 after covering the start of the Iraq War for ABC. An NBC spokeswoman said Tuesday that "he won't be doing any other interviews until he's had some time to decompress and process the events of the past several days." With AP

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Photo: In this image made from video, NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, right, shakes hands with an unidentified person after crossing back into Turkey, after they were freed unharmed following a firefight at a checkpoint after five days of captivity inside Syria, in Cilvegozu, Turkey. (Dec. 18, 2012)

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