NBC's Richard Engel, crew freed after 5 days of captivity in Syria

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NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel is safe in Turkey after five days of captivity in Syria, the network said Tuesday morning. Engel and his crew were last heard from Thursday just after they entered Syria.

After entering Syria, Engel and his team were abducted, tossed into the back of a truck and blindfolded 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.

This information was being kept quiet by the network, reported Gawker's John Cook on Monday.

Richard Engel

During that blackout, which Poynter honored, The Atlantic Wire, the Houston Chronicle and others published news of Engel's disappearance, then unpublished those stories.

Cook explained in a comment why he published news of the disappearance after honoring the blackout request for about 24 hours:

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.

Jeremy Scahill, National Security Correspondent for The Nation, points out that journalists can't always know (or be told) what's going on behind the scenes:

Poynter honored the blackout out of respect for the possible harm publishing it could cause; we also waited out of uncertainty. We knew that NBC News could not contact Engel for several days, but we knew little else. So we prepared a story and waited to publish it until news was confirmed on the record by the network.

Engel appeared on the "Today" show from Antakya, Turkey Tuesday morning alongside producer Ghazi Balkiz and photojournalist John Kooistra, taken with him and also released. He described the abduction and escape, and said, "We're very happy to be here, we're in good health. NBC was fantastic at informing our families, keeping everyone up to date, keeping the story quiet."

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During the appearance, Engel said the NBC newsmen were kidnapped by government militia to be traded for six people held by rebels. "We weren't physically beaten or tortured, it was a lot of psychological torture, threats of being killed," Engel said.

In an interview earlier this year after winning the Alfred I. duPont Award, Engel said:

I don't want to get hurt, and I don't want anyone I work with to be hurt. But you have to be where things are happening in order to have a story and in order to get a sense of what is really going on in the world.

Engel became Chief Foreign Correspondent in April 2008. Before that he was Senior Middle East Correspondent and Beirut Bureau Chief. Engel joined NBC in 2003 and was "one of the only western journalists to cover the entire war in Iraq," according to his official bio.

NBC anchor David Bloom died in Iraq in April 2003, nearly 10 years ago, while embedded with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division outside Baghdad.

When New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid died in Syria last February, Engel paid tribute.

I can’t count the number of times he got stuff that I wish we had — that we all wish we had,” he told WWD. “He always one step ahead of us. We were always chasing him — we weren’t quite chasing him, he was one step ahead of us. He was in one tiny village, talking to these people and coming out with these subtle, textured stories.”

In a report released Tuesday, the Committee to Protect Journalists said that Syria was the deadliest country for journalists, "with 28 journalists killed in combat or targeted for murder by government or opposition forces."

No one has claimed responsibility for capturing Engel, who described his approach to journalism this way in an interview after winning the duPont Award:

"What I try to bring is a sense of the unknown. When I go out and look for a story in the morning, I don't necessarily know how it's going to end. I haven't written the last lines until you've seen the last lines. The good stories have a sense of discovery in them, when you're venturing into the unknown."

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Engel's journalism career quickly intensified after he graduated from Stanford. In a 2008 interview broadcast on C-SPAN, Engel describes his early years.

I took a little bit of money, around $2,000, and I moved to Cairo, because I wanted to learn Arabic, and I thought it would be the story of our times, the Middle East. And this surprised the Egyptian authorities. They kept detaining me. They accused me of being a CIA station chief. And they were friendly enough but always questioning, who is this young American kid living in the slums of Cairo and what does he really want? ...

Then I lived in Jerusalem. And because I spoke Arabic, as soon as I got there, I was sent to the West Bank of Gaza and spent the next three years covering the Intifada. ...

And then the war in Iraq was building up in 2002, and I said, this is the reason that I came here. This is going to be the one that changes it all. So I went into Baghdad, took about $20,000 and just strapped it to my leg.

Engel reported from Iraq as a freelance journalist for ABC before being hired by NBC.

Al Tompkins contributed to this report.


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