— BEIRUT (AP) — More than a dozen pro-regime gunmen kidnapped and held NBC's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and several colleagues for five days inside Syria, threatening them with mock executions and blindfolding them before the team finally escaped unharmed during a firefight between their captors and rebels, Engel said Tuesday.
Speaking to NBC's "Today" show one day after the escape, an unshaven Engel said the kidnappers executed at least one of his rebel escorts on the spot at the time he was captured. He also said he believes the kidnappers were a Shiite militia group loyal to the Syrian government, which is fighting a deadly civil war against rebels.
"They kept us blindfolded, bound," said 39-year-old Engel, who speaks and reads Arabic. "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," Engel said. He said the captors were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and allied with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group.
"They captured us in order to carry out this exchange," he said.
Both Iran and Hezbollah are close allies of the embattled Syrian regime, which has become a global pariah since it unleashed its forces in March 2011 to crush mostly peaceful protests against the regime. The bloody crackdown on protests led many in Syria to take up arms against the government, and the conflict has morphed into a civil war.
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.