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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

NBC Reporter Describes Captivity in Syria

Richard Engel, the chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, and four colleagues were freed on Monday after five days in captivity in Syria, as my colleagues Brian Stelter and Bill Carter report.

According to an NBC report, the men were held captive by members of a pro-government militia known as the shabiha until Monday, “when their captors ran into a checkpoint manned by members of the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, a Syrian rebel group.”

The journalists escaped during a firefight, as Mr. Engel explained during an interview on the “Today,” show on Tuesday morning.

The journalists were held in what NBC described as “an unknown location believed to be near the small town of Ma'arrat Misrin, in northern Syria. They were traveling with rebel fighters last Thursday when they were ambushed by the supporters of President Bashar al-Assad.

“We weren't physically beaten or tortured,” Mr. Engel said, but “they made us choose which one of us would be shot first and when we refused there were mock shootings.” The captors pretended to shoot Mr. Engel's producer, Ghazi Balkiz, several times, he said.

As Matt Weaver reports on The Guardian's Middle East Live blog, video of the men before and after they were freed has already been posted on YouTube.

The video of the men in captivity, uploaded to YouTube on Friday but removed on Tuesday for violating the site's terms of service, showed six captives sitting on a floor, including a man who identified himself as a German journalist who works for CNN. In the recording, apparently made as a proof-of-life video by the captors, the men identified themselves and appealed to their governments for help.

According to a CNN report, the German man was Ammar Cheikh Omar, who was raised in Germany to Syrian parents. In Febru ary, my colleague Dan Bilefsky wrote a profile of Mr. Omar, who said that he had moved to Syria in 2004 and had been conscripted into the Syrian military just before the uprising began. According to Mr. Omar's account, he took part in the initial bloody crackdown on dissent before defecting in July of last year and making a video denouncing the Assad government.

The brief video clip of the men after their release, apparently uploaded to YouTube on Tuesday by the jihadist group that freed them, shows them laughing with obvious relief as they share a meal.

Video of Richard Engel and othe r foreign journalists after they were freed from their captors in Syria this week.

As my colleagues on our Media desk note, “NBC tried to keep the crew's disappearance a secret for several days while it sought to ascertain their whereabouts. Its television competitors and many other major news organizations, including The New York Times, refrained from reporting on the situation, in part out of fears that any reporting could further endanger the crew.”

After the men returned safely to Turkey, Peter N. Bouckaert, the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch who has been involved in previous efforts to free captives, criticized the Web site Gawker for reporting on the kidnapping before the men were freed.

“It doesn't help,” Mr. Bouckaert told The Lede in a Skype interview from Geneva, “for details about these individuals who are kidnapped to be out there and available to the kidnappers.” He ad ded: “It is a difficult area and it does present a challenge for journalists, a conflict, when journalists want to report the news and obviously someone getting kidnapped is news, and they have to balance that with the security of the individual involved. It goes against the journalistic instinct to report the news, but in many of these cases it does save lives.”