ONTD Political

UPDATED: Richard Engel and NBC News team freed from captors in Syria

9:00 pm - 12/17/2012
NBC News’ Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel and members of his network production team were freed from captors in Syria after a firefight at a checkpoint on Monday, five days after they were taken prisoner, NBC News said early Tuesday.

“After being kidnapped and held for five days inside Syria by an unknown group, NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel and his production crew members have been freed unharmed. We are pleased to report they are safely out of the country,” the network said in a statement.

“It is good to be here,” Engel said during a live appearance on TODAY from Turkey. “I’m very happy that we’re able to do this live shot this morning.”

Engel said that they were traveling with Syrian rebels when a group of about 15 gunmen “jumped out of the trees and bushes” and captured them.

'Psychological torture'

He said the gunmen executed one of the rebels “on the spot,” and later during their captivity they were subjected to mock executions while blindfolded and bound.

"We weren't physically beaten or tortured. It was a lot of psychological torture, threats of being killed," Engel said.

"They made us choose which one of us would be shot first and when we refused there were mock shootings. They pretended to shoot Ghazi [Balkiz, an NBC producer] several times,” Engel said.

Balkiz said that they had “worked with each other very well… we kept each other’s spirits up” during their ordeal. Cameraman John Kooistra said he had “made good with my maker” and had been “prepared to die many times.”

Engel said their captors “were talking openly about their loyalty to the government” of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

He said he had a “very good idea” about who they were -- members of the “shabiha” militia, loyal to Assad, trained by the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and allied with Lebanon-based group Hezbollah.

Engel said their captors’ plan was to use them to win the freedom of people held by the rebels.

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

Engel, 39, and his team disappeared shortly after crossing into northwest Syria from Turkey on Thursday. The network had not been able to contact them until learning that they had been freed on Monday.

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.

After entering Syria, Engel and his team were abducted, tossed into the back of a truck before being transported to an unknown location believed to be near the small town of Ma’arrat Misrin. During their captivity, they were blindfolded and bound, but otherwise not physically harmed, the network said.

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. There was a confrontation and a firefight ensued. Two of the captors were killed, while an unknown number of others escaped, the network said.

The NBC News crew was unharmed in the incident. They remained in Syria until Tuesday morning when they made their way to the border and re-entered Turkey, the network said. They were to be evaluated and debriefed, but had communicated that everyone was in good health.

NBC News said it “expressed its gratitude to those who worked to gather information and secure the release of our colleagues.”

Engel is widely regarded as one of America’s leading foreign correspondents for his coverage of wars, revolutions and political transitions around the world over the last 15 years. Most recently, he was recognized for his outstanding reporting on the 2011 revolution in Egypt, the conflict in Libya and unrest throughout the Arab world.

One of the only Western journalists to cover the entire war in Iraq , Engel was named chief foreign correspondent of NBC News in April 2008. He joined the network in May 2003.

The Syrian civil war began in March 2011, when demonstrators took to the streets to show support for the so-called Arab Spring uprisings sweeping across the Middle East and north Africa and to demand the resignation of Assad of the ruling Ba’ath Party. The following month, Assad deployed the Syrian army to quell the uprising, ordering troops to open fire on demonstrators. But despite the harsh crackdown, Assad’s troops and militias loyal to the government were unable to quell what soon became an armed uprising.

In the intervening months, the security situation in the country has continued to deteriorate amid increasingly fierce fighting between Syrian troops and a loose confederation of outgunned but increasingly emboldened rebel forces. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated in November that more than 40,000 people had died in the fighting.

New source.

Richard Engel is Missing in Syria; NBC News Enforces News Blackout

NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel has gone missing in Syria, according to Turkish news reports. The reports also say that Aziz Akyavaş, a Turkish journalist working with Engel, is unaccounted for. NBC News has been successfully keeping Engel's status subject to a news blackout—one to which Gawker agreed until now—for at least the past 24 hours.

Turkish newspaper Hurriyet is reporting that Engel and Akyavaş were last known to be in Syria and haven't been in contact with NBC News since Thursday morning. The news has been reported widely in the Turkish press over the past 24 hours, including by Turkish news channel NTV, which presents itself as an international partner of MSNBC. It's also been widely distributed on Twitter.

But NBC News has been asking every reporter who inquires about the report to participate in a news blackout. It has also taken to Twitter and asked people who repeated the Turkish reports there to take them down. You can see here a screengrab of the Twitter account @NBCComm asking a Twitter user who had mentioned the reports to urgently call a cell phone number (that account has since been taken down).

NBC News declined to comment for the record about Engel's whereabouts, but asked Gawker not to report what it characterized as "rumors" about Engel's current status.

The Turkish reports have been referenced on Twitter by Slate's David Weigel, Michelle Malkin, former MSNBC anchor David Shuster, and hundreds of others.

Chinese newswire Xinhua, Daily Kos, and Breitbart.com have also both repeated the Turkish reports.

When New York Times reporter David Rohde was kidnapped in 2008, the Times successfully maintained a months-long news blackout about his condition by arguing that the militants holding Rohde had issued specific instructions to keep his condition quiet (those claims were later undermined after Rohde escaped). An NBC News spokeswoman could not offer any detail about Engel's condition or status.

Update: Some readers may be interested to read a more detailed explanation for why we decided to publish this post against NBC News' wishes. I supplied such an explanation to a commenter here; I've also pasted that reply below.

The rationale for the blackout was offered in off-the-record conversations, so I can't present their argument here. But I will say this: No one told me anything that indicated a specific, or even general, threat to Engel's safety. No one said, "If you report this, then we know, or suspect, that X, Y, or Z may happen." It was infinitely more vague and general than that.

As I wrote in the post, when the New York Times maintained a blackout about David Rohde, the rationale was clear: I was directly told that the Times had reason to believe that the people who had Rohde would harm him if news got out. There was nothing approaching that level of specificity or argumentation here. I would not have written a post if someone had told me that there was a reasonable or even remote suspicion that anything specific would happen if I wrote the post.

Also: There was in practice no blackout. Xinhua and Breitbart had published English language accounts. There were probably like 100 posts to Twitter per minute about him. This was a situation where the information was freely available on the internet, and in the region—these are large Turkish outlets reporting this information. It was out.

Links and tweets at the source.

So glad they're safe!
kitanabychoice 18th-Dec-2012 04:50 am (UTC)
Wow. Scary.
fickery 18th-Dec-2012 04:52 am (UTC)
Has anyone else heard about this?

I follow a lot of journalists on Twitter and a number of them mentioned it earlier today, but I don't know anything beyond what you've posted. I hope he's okay--I really like his reporting.

Side-eying Gawker for not respecting the request for a news blackout.
fickery 18th-Dec-2012 06:48 am (UTC)
Posting again to add that our local FOX affiliate had brief (10 - 15 seconds) coverage of it on the 11:00 PM news as well.
veracity 18th-Dec-2012 07:25 am (UTC)
Seriously. It's more important to be the first...rather to think, maybe just maybe, there's a reason for the blackout?? To universe 324 with them. There's where all the people I find questionable exist. Getting pretty full now.
serendipity_15 18th-Dec-2012 05:15 am (UTC)
I follow a couple journalists, including Richard Engel, on twitter but I haven't really been on twitter much today so I didn't notice. I read his book, War Journal, and ever since then I've worried that something would happen to him.
layweed 18th-Dec-2012 05:19 am (UTC)
Idk, I'm a little torn between "yeah it's another one of those gotta scoop the scoop" incidents and "responsible journalism", but I really feel like it's the former. Regardless, I hope Richard Engel and his Turkish counterpart are safe and sound.
grace_om 18th-Dec-2012 05:19 am (UTC)
Oh no. I hope he's okay. He's a great journalist.
the_glow_worm 18th-Dec-2012 05:37 am (UTC)
Hope he's okay.

Gawker's excuses for breaking this story are a wee bit weak. Really.
myrrhmade 18th-Dec-2012 05:42 am (UTC)
Oh No. I hope they're both safe.
tiddlywinks103 18th-Dec-2012 05:51 am (UTC)
Oh, shit.
kelixo 18th-Dec-2012 06:37 am (UTC)
Oh no. I hope that both Engel and Akyavaş are ok.
itcamefromjapan 18th-Dec-2012 09:26 am (UTC)
Oh, fuck. D:
fishphile 18th-Dec-2012 10:17 am (UTC)
Should have refreshed before posting. I'm glad this all worked out well.
fishphile 18th-Dec-2012 10:15 am (UTC)
They're safe. They were rescued and at least are physically unharmed. I'd post a source, but I'm on a mobile device. However, it's on twitter, the nbc blog and msnbc just mentioned it on their first look thingy. Glad this ended up being good news.
mollybarton 18th-Dec-2012 12:11 pm (UTC)
Just saw them on Today- they're fine!
bnmc2005 19th-Dec-2012 04:09 am (UTC)

OP would you mind updating your article? I nearly had a heart attack! :)
countrygirl_914 20th-Dec-2012 04:37 am (UTC)
poetic_pixie_13 19th-Dec-2012 04:37 pm (UTC)
Gawker can go fuck themselves for breaking the blackout, tbqh. It's disgusting.
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