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NBC News crew is freed in Syria

Richard Engel and four colleagues were kidnapped and repeatedly threatened with death for five days.

ANTAKYA, Turkey - NBC News correspondent Richard Engel and his four-person crew were freed unharmed Monday after being kidnapped inside Syria and subjected to five days of forced moves and death threats.

The journalists were released following a gun battle between their captors and Syrian rebels at a checkpoint manned by the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, NBC said. They crossed safely back into Turkey.

Appearing on the Today show Tuesday morning, Engel, 39, said his captors were part of a government militia known as Shabiha, which is loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Engel described the kidnappers as Shiite Muslims, trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guard and allied with Hezbollah.

The kidnappers told the journalists they wanted to exchange them for four Iranian agents and two Lebanese Shabiha members who had been captured by the rebels, Engel said. That plan was thwarted when the kidnappers unwittingly drove into a rebel checkpoint while trying to move the captives to a new location. In the ensuing gunfight, two of the group's captors were killed.

"It is good to be here. I am very happy that we're able to do this live shot this morning," Engel, NBC's chief foreign correspondent, said on Today.

He said that he, producer Ghazi Balkiz, cameraman John Kooistra, and two other crew members were driving Thursday through what they thought was a rebel-held area in Syria, accompanied by rebel fighters, when about 15 heavily armed men, their faces obscured by ski masks, "just literally jumped out of the trees and bushes at the side of the road."

The gunmen executed one of the rebels "on the spot," Engel said.

They took the NBC crew to a series of safe houses and interrogation places near the town of Ma'arrat Misrin, keeping them blindfolded and tied up.

Engel, Balkiz and Kooistra, who appeared together on Today, said they were not hurt physically but were subjected to "psychological torture," including threats that one or all of them would be killed.

"They made us choose which one of us would be shot first, and when we refused, there were mock shootings. They pretended to shoot Ghazi several times," Engel said, referring to Balkiz.

"When you're blindfolded and then they fire the gun up in the air, it can be a very traumatic experience."

The men, who were under orders to remain silent, peeked under their blindfolds in quiet moments and exchanged jokes and words of support when they felt their guards would not hear. "We kept each others' spirits up," Balkiz said.

Monday night, as they were being moved to a new location, the group came upon the Ahrar al-Sham checkpoint, triggering the skirmish that led to the captives being freed.

The names of the other crew members in the group were not released. NBC said there had been no claim of responsibility for the kidnapping, and no ransom demand.