Washington (AFP) – US television journalist Richard Engel, kidnapped in Syria and held for five days, was freed after a firefight between his captors and Syrian rebels, his employer NBC News said 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,” the network said in a statement.
“We are pleased to report they are safely out of the country,” it added.
Engel, 39, is one of the most high-profile US journalists to report from Syria, where rebels have been fighting to overthrow President Bashar Al-Assad in a civil war that has claimed some 43,000 lives, according to activists.
NBC said Engel and other unnamed employees went missing shortly after crossing into Syria from Turkey on Thursday, and that it had not been able to contact them until it learned they had been freed on Monday.
The network said there was no claim of responsibility, no contact with the captors and no ransom paid.
The kidnappers hustled Engel and his crew into the back of a truck and took them to an unknown location believed to be near the town of Ma’arrat Misrin, NBC said. They were blindfolded and bound but otherwise unharmed, it said.
When the captors tried to move them to another location late Monday, they ran into a checkpoint manned by Syrian rebels from the Ahrar Al-Sham Brigade. A firefight broke out and two of the captors were killed, NBC said.
The other captors escaped, and Engel’s crew was not harmed in the incident. The journalists were able to cross back into Turkey Tuesday morning and were in good health, NBC said.
Engel has spent the last 15 years reporting on wars, revolutions and other unrest from the Middle East and elsewhere.
He covered the entire Iraq war, from the 2003 US-led invasion until the withdrawal of troops last year, and was named NBC chief foreign correspondent in April 2008.
Syria is one of the most dangerous places in the world to report from, with at least 17 journalists killed and 21 imprisoned since the uprising began in March 2011, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Another 48 citizen journalists and “netizens” have been killed, and 18 have been imprisoned, it said.
Ordinary people and activists uploading amateur videos and other reports have played a key role throughout the uprising in publicising events in Syria, where the government has heavily restricted media access.
The 21-month-long rebellion began as a series of Arab Spring-style protests against the Assad family’s four-decade rule but has since escalated into a brutal civil war, with fierce battles and intensive shelling in major cities.
Another American, 31-year-old freelance reporter Austin Tice, went missing on 13 August while reporting from the Damascus suburb of Daraya, which came under intense regime shelling.
His parents said last month they have not heard from him since he disappeared nor been contacted by any party claiming to hold Tice, who contributed to the Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers and other outlets.
A video of Tice that surfaced 26 September has not yielded any clues about his whereabouts or the suspected kidnappers, they said.
US officials believe Tice is being held by the Assad regime, while the government has said it does not know his whereabouts.
Ukrainian journalist, Ankhar Kotchneva, was kidnapped two months ago by militants who claim to belong to the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Her abductors have threatened to execute the young woman if they do not receive a ransom of $50 million (€38 million), according to the Ukrainian media.