NBC’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, 39, and two of his production crew members who were kidnapped in Syria and held for five days, were freed early today, December 18.
Engel, who is Jewish, was interviewed this morning by NBC, shortly after he arrived in Antakya, Turkey. The American news crew was taken there after they were freed, following a shootout between their abductors and Syrian rebels.
Engel explained that on Dec. 13, he and his crew were in an area of Syria they believed was held by rebels, when, as they drove along a road, “a group of heavily armed gunmen jumped out of the trees and bushes.” The captors dragged the journalists out of their car, shoved them into a “container truck,” and killed on the spot one of the rebels with whom the NBC crew had been traveling.
During the five days they were held in captivity, the NBC crew were kept bound and blindfolded. Engel said that while they were not physically beaten, they did undergo psychological torture.
The American journalists were told they had to “pick which one of the three should be killed first,” Engel said. When they refused, the captors picked the producer, Ghazi Balkiz, and told the three that he would be killed first, and then fired their guns into the air. Because all three journalists were blindfolded, they believed Balkiz was shot, just as Balkiz believed he was about to be shot.
On Tuesday, the journalists were in the back of what they described as a minivan being moved to another “safe house,” when the captors were surprised by a checkpoint manned by Syrian rebels. A shootout ensued, and the journalists escaped through the back of the van. The NBC crew was then taken to Turkey by Syrian rebels, where the journalists were able to make contact with their families and their employer.
In an understatement, an unshaven Engel said during his live NBC interview this morning, “I’m very happy that we are able to do this live shot this morning.”
Although they cannot say for sure, Engel told NBC that their captors spoke openly about their loyalty to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Engel said he believes their captors are part of the pro-regime “shabiha” milita, which is allied with Hezbollah, and trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
According to an NBC report, Engel and his crew understood that their captors hoped to exchange the journalists for comrades held by the rebels.
Engel grew up on the upper East Side of Manhattan. He attended Stanford University and is fluent in Arabic.
There is another American journalist whom American officials believe is being held in Syria by the Assad regime. Austin Tice, a 31-year-old freelance reporter, disappeared while reporting from a Damascus suburb on August 13. A video of Tice turned up on September 26, neither Tice’s family nor anyone else has been contacted about him or told of his whereabouts.
The Tice family set up a website in the hopes that someone will be able to provide information about their son.