An NBC News team including chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and Turkish journalist Aziz Akyavaş has been freed after a firefight between its captors and an anti-regime group in Syria.
The freed journalists crossed into Turkey through the Cilvegözü border gate in Hatay on Tuesday morning. They said they were subjected to psychological pressure but not physically beaten. “There was psychological pressure. We were blindfolded, our hands were handcuffed. There was no food and they pointed a gun to our heads from time to time,” Akyavaş told Turkish news channel NTV soon after crossing the border. “It was not a pleasant experience.”
NBC lost contact with the team on Thursday morning, shortly after the team crossed into northwestern Syria from Turkey. NBC enforced a news blackout since then, apparently for security reasons. There was no claim of responsibility and no request for ransom during the time the crew was missing, NBC said on Tuesday.
“It was a very traumatic experience,” Engel said on NBC's “Today” program, speaking from Hatay. “Early Monday evening local time, the prisoners were being moved to a new location in a vehicle when their captors ran into a checkpoint manned by members of the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, a Syrian rebel group,” the network said.
“There was a confrontation and a firefight ensued. Two of the captors were killed, while an unknown number of others escaped,” NBC said, adding that the news crew left Syria on Tuesday morning.
Engel said he had “a very good idea” who his captors were. “This was a group known as the Shabiha. This is a government militia. These are people who are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad,” he said on NBC, adding that the kidnappers spoke openly about their loyalty to the government and their faith.
He said the captors were planning to exchange him and his team for four Iranian agents and two Shabiha members.
Ahrar al-Sham, an extremist Salafist group that includes a large contingent of foreign fighters, has been at the forefront of rebel offensives in the country's north.
Members of the group have told Reuters that the unit wants to establish an Islamic caliphate in Syria, not a pluralistic democracy, when Assad is overthrown. But they have not shown hostility to Western journalists covering the conflict.
Akyavaş said the captors asked them to talk to a camera, identify themselves and ask their government to rescue them. He also said he knows that NBC and the Turkish Foreign Ministry were involved in efforts to rescue them.
He said his passport and all of his equipment, including clothing, were taken away.
Last month, a Turkish journalist held in Syria for three months by a group alleged to be linked to the Syrian government was released. Cüneyt Ünal, who works for the US-funded al-Hurra television channel, went missing with Palestinian colleague Bashar Fahmi Kadumi shortly after crossing into Syria from Turkey on Aug. 20 to cover the civil war in the war-torn city of Aleppo.
Kadumi remains unaccounted for. Ünal said at a recent press conference that he saw Kadumi being shot by opposition fighters right before he was kidnapped.