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'A lot of psychological torture': NBC News team tells of kidnapping ordeal in Syria

After being held captive for five days in Syria, NBC's Richard Engel and his team recount being ambushed and blindfolded before being freed at a checkpoint. 

Hours after crossing the border into Turkey, NBC News’ Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel and his crew told the story of their harrowing five-day kidnapping ordeal inside war-torn Syria.

“We were with some of the [anti-government] rebels and as we were moving down the road a group of gunmen literally jumped out of the trees and bushes on the side of the road,” Engel said Tuesday during a live interview with TODAY from Antakya, Turkey. “There were about 15 gunmen wearing ski masks, they were heavily armed. They had a container truck positioned, waiting by the side of the road. They put us into that container truck. We were with some gunmen - some rebels that were escorting us - they executed one of them on the spot.”

Over the next several days, the men, who were kept blindfolded and bound, were interrogated and transferred to a series of safe houses.

“We weren’t physically beaten or tortured,” Engel said, adding that there was “a lot of psychological torture, threats of being killed. They made us choose which one of us would be shot first. When we refused, there were mock shootings. They pretended to shoot [NBC News producer] Ghazi several times, then they fired a gun up in the air.”

To keep their spirits up, the journalists would peek through their blindfolds and take any opportunity when they were left alone by the guards to joke around with each other.

Richard Engel and NBC News team freed from captors in Syria

“When we first got captured it was a difficult moment of disbelief,” said producer Ghazi Balkiz, who has worked for many years with Engel and cameraman John Kooistra. “They were a long, five hard days and a few moments of despair. I thought about my family, my brother, my parents, my wife, and I have been feeling bad about what I have been putting them through. But it did help a lot that we were together.”

After five days in captivity, opportunity struck. The kidnappers loaded the men into a minivan and were in the midst of transferring them to another location when they came upon a rebel checkpoint.

'One of the happiest moments of my life'
The captors started a firefight with the rebels and two of the kidnappers were killed. Engel, Balkiz and Kooistra quickly climbed out of the van, joined up with the rebels and spent a restless night with them.

Early Tuesday morning, the group crossed the border – as free men - into Turkey, with the bandages used to bind them still in their pockets.

Video: Street fighting, shelling in Syria capital

“I must say that when we were freed yesterday, rescued by the rebels, it was one of the happiest moments of my life,” said Balkiz.

“During the ordeal I made amends with my maker, made good with myself,” added Kooistra. “I was prepared to die many times. Moving was the hardest part. It was disconcerting to move blindfolded from house to house.”

Engel said that he had a “very good idea” of who his captors were: members of the “shabiha” government militia, Shiites loyal to President Bashar Assad, trained by the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and allied with Lebanon-based group Hezbollah.

“We were told they wanted to exchange us for four Iranian agents and two Lebanese people...,” said an unshaven Engel, still wearing the clothes from the day he was seized. “They captured us in order to carry out this exchange.”

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