Syrian rebels free journalists snatched by pro-Assad group

Richard Engel, centre, with a Turkish colleague, left, and NBC cameraman John Kooistra, right, during captivity
Richard Engel, centre, with a Turkish colleague, left, and NBC cameraman John Kooistra, right, during captivity
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Islamic militant rebels have freed NBC’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel from a Syrian government-backed militia after he and his TV crew were kidnapped, kept bound and blindfolded and subjected to mock executions.

Their ordeal ended on Monday night when their captors, moving them between safe houses, unexpectedly drove into a checkpoint set up by an Islamist rebel group. Two of the ­kidnappers were killed in the ensuing firefight, and the NBC team spent the night with the Islamist rebels, Mr Engel said.

The US broadcaster identified the rebels at the checkpoint as members of the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, a ­Syrian rebel group.

Speaking to NBC’s Today show yesterday from Turkey, an ­unshaven Mr Engel said the team had been travelling with anti-Assad forces in a rebel-held area of Syria when they were snatched. The kidnappers executed at least one of his escorts at the time he was captured.

Mr Engel, 39, said he believes the kidnappers were a Shiite militia group loyal to president Bashar al-Assad’s government.

“They kept us blindfolded, bound,” Mr 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.”

He added: “They were talking openly about their loyalty to the government.” He said the captors were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and allied with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group.

Both Iran and Hezbollah are close allies of the embattled Syrian regime.

Mr Engel said he was told the kidnappers wanted to exchange him and his crew for four Iranian and two Lebanese prisoners being held by the rebels.

“They captured us in order to carry out this exchange,” he said.

Around 11pm on Monday, Mr Engel said the team were being moved to another location in northern Idlib province.

“As we were moving along the road, the kidnappers came across a rebel checkpoint, something they hadn’t expected.

“We were in the back of what you would think of as a minivan. 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. We spent the night with them.”

Mr Engel and his crew crossed back into Turkey yesterday.

NBC did not formally identify the others who were kidnapped along with Mr Engel. The network said there was no claim of responsibility, no contact with the captors and no request for ransom during the time the crew was missing.

But Mr Engel said of the captors: “This was a group known as the Shabiha. This is a government militia.”

The group that freed the NBC team, Ahrar al-Sham, is an extremist Salafist group that includes a large contingent of foreign fighters, and has been at the forefront of rebel offensives in northern Syria.

Members have said the group wants to establish an Islamic caliphate in Syria, not a pluralistic democracy, when Mr Assad is overthrown. But they have not shown hostility to Western journalists covering the conflict.

The Syrian government has barred most foreign media coverage of the civil war, which has killed more than 40,000 people since the uprising began. Those whom the regime has allowed in have their movements controlled by information ministry minders. Some foreign journalists sneak into Syria illegally with the help of smugglers.

Several journalists have been killed covering the conflict, including French TV reporter Gilles Jacquier, French photographer Remi Ochlik and British correspondent Marie Colvin.