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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

As Last Member of NBC Team Escapes Syria, More Details on Hostage Drama Emerge

Last Updated, 6:06 p.m. NBC News announced on Wednesday that an employee who had been kidnapped in Syria last week along with the correspondent Richard Engel arrived safely in Turkey, as more details of the hostage drama were released by opposition media activists.

According to the news network's statement, Ian Rivers, a Briton working with Mr. Engel, “got separated from the rest of Richard Engel's production team in the midst of the firefight which resulted in the NBC team's escape from captivity.”

Late on Tuesday, Mr. Rivers said in a video message to his family posted online by Syrian activists that he was in safe hands, with a Syrian rebel brigade, and expected to cross into Turkey on Wednesday.

A video message recorded in Syria on Tuesday night by an NBC News employee to let his family know he was safe after escapting captivity.

Several hours later, the rebel media activists posted a second clip of Mr. Rivers at the border crossing into Turkey, in which he thanked the fighters for taking care of him after he had become separated from the rest of the team “in the confusion of some sort of handover” on Monday.

Video of Ian Rivers, an NBC News employee who escaped from pro-government militia in Syria, thanking the rebel fighters who escorted him to the Turkish border.

As The Lede reported on Tuesday, when Mr. Engel and two members of his production team described the five days they spent in the custody of a pro-government militia known as the shabiha, a proof-of-life video posted on YouTube last week, apparently by the kidnappers, showed six members of the NBC team including Mr. Engel and Mr. Rivers. NBC had asked other news organizations not to broadcast that video while Mr. Rivers was still unaccounted for, and had the original copy removed from the YouTube channel where it was first posted on Friday, the day after the men were captured in an ambush while traveling with rebel fighters in northern Syria.

Before the video of the men in captivity was removed from YouTube, a copy of the brief clip was made by a blogger who uses the name Guardian Mario, who said that he also cleaned it up and improved the resolution.

The same blogger also made a panoramic still image of the men in captivity by stitching together frames from the video.

As Eliot Higgins noted in a post about the video on the Brown Moses blog, “Unlike virtually every YouYube account that re-uploads videos from Syria, Guardian Mario carefully records the original information that comes along with the original upload, and helpfully provides further information.” In this case, the blogger explained the graffiti visible on the walls behind the men in the video. One wall displayed a Shiite or Alawite Muslim slogan about Ali, the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. “There is no chivalrous man except Ali, and there is no sword except” Ali's mythical sword, the text read. While Shiite Musli ms believe that Ali was Muhammad's rightful heir, Alawites profess a belief in the divinity of Ali, one of the reasons that they were oppressed as infidels for centuries by other Muslims. The other wall was covered in a common slogan expressing the loyalty of pro-government militiamen to President Bashar al-Assad: “Assad, or we burn the whole country!”

As The Lede noted late Tuesday, another Syrian opposition YouTube channel uploaded a long video interview with Mr. Engel, in which he described the team's captivity in fluent Arabic to Khaled Abu Salah, a well-known media activist. Mr. Abu Salah was the rebel media coordinator in the besieged Homs district of Baba Amr in February, when government shelling killed Marie Colvin, an American correspondent for London's Sunday Times, along with Rémi Ochlik, a French photographer.

A Syrian activist's video interview with the NBC News correspondent Richard Engel.

At the start of the video, Mr. Abu Salah says, “There are many stories of foreign journalists with the Syrian revolution that do not end with Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, who sacrificed their lives to report the truth about Syria.”

In the interview, Mr. Engel said that his team was taken prisoner in an ambush soon after crossing into Syria from Turkey via the border post at Bab al-Hawa.He gave a detailed account of the ordeal, ending with an expression of thanks to the rebel brigade known as Ahrar al-Sham for saving his life and those of his fellow hostages on Monday.

Here is a partial translation of Mr. Engel's remarks:

After Bab al-Hawa, directly, maybe after 10 or 15 kilometers, there was an ambush. About 15 armed men, shabiha, descended on us and there was an ambush all set up. We knew because they had a car under the trees and its doors were wide open. The moment the armed men were on us, they took us from our car and brought us to the set-up under the trees, put us in their car and shut the doors and took us to a farm.

We had with us one young guy from the revolutionaries, and after we arrived at the farm they executed him. I heard him shout. … I also heard someone was looking for gasoline. I think he also wanted to burn him, to set him on fire. But they didn't have any gasoline.

After that, they moved us from house to house to house to house. Every day they threatened us and every day w e thought it was our last day. They didn't let us go to the toilet. It was psychological torture. I went for 30 hours without the toilet, and that is not normal.

The guard was in front of us. I didn't see him because my eyes were covered the whole time but I knew his voice. He was in front of us. Every day we thought it was our last day.

They were looking for a prisoner exchange. We understood that there was a group and in it were four Iranians and they were prisoners in the hands of the revolutionaries, and two Lebanese from the Amal movement. We picked this up from the shabiha themselves. I acted like I didn't understand Arabic. I just stayed quiet and said “shokran” and “thank you,” simple words, but I was listening.

Asked if he or anyone on his team had been tortured, Mr. Engel replied:

They executed the gunman, the soldier for the revolutionaries, they executed him in front of us. But for us directly there wasn't anything but psychological torture.

There was one guard, the one who was most responsible for us. He always came into the room and we didn't see him but we knew his voice. And he said, ‘O.K., who will I kill today?' He forced us - no, he said, ‘Who will I give the gift to?' Those were his words, ‘Who will I give the gift to?' And he had a handgun. And he did this, he put the handgun next to our faces, so that we would know he had a gun. ‘Who will I give the gift to?'

And he forced us, he forced us to choose one from among ourselves. We had to say, ‘I want this guy to die' or ‘I want this guy to die.' He forced us to choose one of our own guys. We refused because we couldn't. So he said, ‘O.K., I will choose,' and he chose one of my colleagues who of course was also kidnapped and he said, ‘O.K., get on your knees.' And so we'd be convinced. He'd say, ‘Give me your leg,' and he'd force his legs down and we couldn't see anything. And then the last thing, he would shoot into the air.

It was psychological terrorism and it happened like that every day. After that, they would be nice to you. They would bring you juice, a cigarette, a new battery. Another time they took us outside, all six of us outside, and we heard that they were laying out something plastic on the ground. And we thought, O.K., it's over. These are definitely our last moments. They were putting it down so that the blood could spill on it. … We thought anything could happen. And we are sitting there and we couldn't see anything. It was nighttime and it was cold, and we were lined up like this and like this, and we heard a man reloading his machine gun. And they did this for half an hour. … That's how they acted until the very end.

In response to a question about what the militiamen said to the captives, Mr. Engel said:

They were the shabiha. They said this country belonged to them. This country belonged to Ba shar. I heard them say this. They said … they would hit anything. They would kill all of your children, they would kill all your women so they couldn't produce any more dogs like you. Things like that. I was shocked by their language. It was so bloody.

Describing their rescue, Mr. Engel said:

Every day we moved from house to house, sometimes twice in one day. We changed houses a lot. During the last move, there was an impromptu checkpoint set up by the revolutionaries. From the fighters of … um … Ahrar al-Sham. How could I forget? They saved my life. Ahrar al-Sham. I'll say it one more time, Ahrar al-Sham. They saved my life. We got to this street and there was an impromptu checkpoint of Ahrar al-Sham fighters and there was an exchange of gunfire. … It was an ambush.

Asked by his interviewer if the firing was random or precise, Mr. Engel said: “It was accurate. Accurate.” When the interviewer suggested to Mr . Engel that the rebels knew the car was coming, he said: “The ambush was precise. It was airtight.” He continued:

We came in a minibus and sitting in front of us were two gunmen, one in front with a gun and the other over on the right with a gun. And there were six of us, behind. We got to the impromptu checkpoint and they were yelling: ‘Checkpoint! Checkpoint! Checkpoint!' One of our abductors got out and shot at the checkpoint and he was killed right away. One or two shots, very direct, and he was dead. The other man got out of the car and was killed. And not a shot hit the inside of the car. Nothing happened inside the car. And we got out through the window, all my friends, to the revolutionaries, who saved our lives. We made a tape with them after our liberation to thank them because we were so thankful to them. If I hadn't been freed, I would still be inside or maybe dead, I don't know. And then after th at it was over, we went to the border and then you and I met a little while ago.

In response to a question about what he would say to the fighters who freed him, and to the Syrian people, Mr. Engel said: “To Ahrar al-Sham, I would say thank you. And then I would say again, thank you. I would say, Thank you from my heart. We saw that their behavior was very good. For the Syrian people, I just want peace. I hope that this crisis ends quickly.”

Robert Mackey also remixes the news on Twitter @robertmackey.