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Foreign journalists freed after harrowing week with extremists in Syria

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After months of protests and violent crackdowns, a look back at the violence that has overtaken the country.

LONDON -- Two foreign journalists held hostage for a week by Islamic extremists have been rescued by anti-government Syrian fighters, reports said Friday.

Dutch freelance photographer Jeroen Oerlemans, on assignment for Britain’s Panos Pictures, and British freelance photographer John Cantlie were held at a camp by a group of young fighters, Josh Lustig, assignments editor for Panos Pictures, confirmed to NBCNews.com


According to The New York Times, which said it spoke to Oerlemans by telephone in Turkey, the men were hooded and blindfolded and repeatedly threatened with death.

The man hired as a local guide by the men inadvertently led the journalists into a camp controlled by the fighters, who then took the two as hostages on July 19, Lustig said.

"They were only foreign jihadis, I don't think there was one Syrian among them," The Times quoted Oerlemans as saying. He told the newspaper there were between 30 and 100 fighters in the camp.

"They were from all over the world I think," he told The Times, adding their captors, who spoke English, referred to being under the leadership of an "emir."

The men were rescued on Thursday evening when a larger group of fighters, who Oerlemans told The Times he believed were from the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army, entered the camp and forced the extremists to release the journalists.

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"They were shouting at everyone, saying how long has this been going on, this is outrageous, yelling at the jihadis, and then they told us, 'You are free.' Our hearts leapt of course,” he told the newspaper.

The revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's rule began 16 months ago.

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The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which compiles reports from activists, has said at least 1,261 people have been killed since the fighting intensified in the capital Damascus on July 15. That made last week by far the bloodiest in an uprising in which activists say at least 18,000 people have been killed.

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The key city of Aleppo has come under ferocious assault, bombarded by fighter jets and machine gun fire. The Syrian government's main priority is taking control of the major cities – without enough troops to control the entire country, they are on the offensive. NBC's Richard Engel reports from northern Syria.

'Phew!'
"Overjoyed to have photojournalists Jeroen Oerlemans and John Cantlie - who were kidnapped last week in #Syria - out of danger. Phew!," Panos wrote on its Twitter feed on Friday.

Before heading out to Syria, Cantlie wrote on his blog that he was excited about the assignment.

"I'm thrilled to be going back in with a cool Dutch photographer I met in Libya last year. ... (Oerlemans is) the perfect travel buddy," he wrote.

The captors accused the journalists of being spies and discussed holding them for ransom, The Times reported.

"They were definitely quite extreme in their religious beliefs," Oerlemans told The Times.

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"All day we were spoken to about the Koran and how they would bring Sharia law to Syria. I don’t think they were al-Qaida, they seemed too amateurish for that. They said, 'We're not al-Qaida, but al-Qaida is down the road,'" the newspaper quoted him as saying.

The fighters repeatedly referenced the American prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and threatened to kill the journalists, Oerlemans told The Times.

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"They would cock their weapons and say, 'Prepare for the after life,' or, 'You better repent and accept Islam.' It was pretty terrifying, I can assure you," the paper quoted Oerlemans as saying.

The men attempted to escape on Saturday night, but were recaptured, Lustig told NBC. Both men suffered gunshot wounds in the attempted escape, reports said. Lustig said Oerlemans was injured in the groin but is apparently recovering in good shape.

Both journalists are now safe in Turkey, Lustig and The Times said.

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Cantlie was on assignment for The Sunday Times of London (site operates behind a pay wall), reports said.

NBC News' Daniel Strieff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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