NBC crew's captors appeared loyal to Syria regime

Richard Engel and his crew
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NBC's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel says he believes the gunmen who kidnapped him and his crew in Syria were a Shiite militia group loyal to the Syrian government.

NBC said Tuesday that Engel and members of his production crew were freed unharmed a day earlier following a firefight at a checkpoint in Syria. The team was taken prisoner Thursday.

Engel told NBC's "Today" show Tuesday that the captors "were talking openly about their loyalty to the government." He said his captors executed at least one of his rebel escorts on the spot at the time they were captured.

Engel described "psychological torture" during which he and his crew were blindfolded as his captors behaved as if they were going to execute them.

Richard Engel's account of his crew's kidnapping

"We were driving in Syria about five days ago, in what we thought was a rebel-controlled area. We were with some of the rebels, and as we were moving down the road a group of gunmen literally jumped out of the trees and bushes on the side of the road.

There were probably 15 gunmen, they were wearing ski masks, they were heavily armed. They dragged us out of the car, they had a container truck positioned waiting by the side of the road. They put us into that container truck, we were with some gunmen, some rebels who were escorting us, they executed one of them on the spot. And they took us to a series of safe houses and interrogation places, and they kept us blindfolded, bound, we weren't physically beaten or tortured. A lot of psychological torture.

Threats of being killed, they made us chose which one of us would be shot first, when we refused there were mock shootings. They pretended to shoot Ghazi several times and we were blindfolded and they fired a gun up in the air.

It can be a very traumatic experience and at the end of this we were being moved to yet another location, late around 11 o'clock last night local time and as we were moving along the road the kidnappers came across a rebel checkpoint, something they hadn't expected.

And we were in the back of a mini-van and when we were driving along the road the kidnappers saw this checkpoint, started a gun fight 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, we didn't get much sleep, and we came right here and we just got into Turkey a short while ago. I still have on me, I think these guys do as well the bandages in our pockets, the clothes we were wearing. They were torn from our bedsheets.

It was a traumatic experience, we're very happy to be here, we're in good health, we're okay, everyone was brave. NBC was fantastic in informing our families, keeping people up to date, keeping the story quiet, but while we're obviously very happy there are many people who are still not at liberty to do this kind of thing. There are still hostages, there are still people who don't have their freedom inside Syria and we wish them well."

"I think I have a very good idea who they 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, they are Shi'ite they were talking openly about their loyalty to the government. Openly expressing their Shia faith.

They are trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, they are allied with Hezbollah. We were told that they wanted to exchange us for four Iranian agents and two Lebanese people who were from the Ahrar movement. And these were other Shabiha members who had been captured by the rebels, they captured us in order to carry out this exchange."

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