Agencies- The safe return of Richard Engel and his crew vindicated a news blackout on his capture, according to Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch who helped enforce the embargo. The NBC crew of five people went missing last week.
Press reports on Tuesday said “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.”
NBC said in a statement that Engel, who went missing along with his crew on Thursday, was "freed from captors in Syria after a firefight at a checkpoint on Monday, five days after they were taken prisoner." The network did not identify the others who had been abducted with Engel.
"We are pleased to report they are safely out of the country," NBC added.
NBC said in its statement that the captors "were not believed to be loyal to President al-Assad regime," but speaking live on NBC's morning show from Turkey, just hours after crossing into the country, Engel himself said his captors were members of the pro-Assad "Shabiha" militia.
"They were talking openly about their loyalty to the government," Engel said, describing his ordeal. "We were told that they wanted to exchange us for four Iranian agents and two Lebanese people... they captured us in order to carry out this exchange."
Engel said his captors were taking him and his crew to a Hezbollah stronghold inside Syria when they encountered the rebel checkpoint and became involved in the firefight.
Speaking to the Guardian from Geneva later on Tuesday, Peter Bouckaert said “We didn’t want the kidnappers to find out who they had and to get a lot of publicity over this.”
Bouckaert, who runs an online group to help journalists reporting in Syria, said “It was very important to have a news blackout. There was some noise on Twitter and in the Turkish press but it certainly made a very significant difference that the main networks as well as the main newspapers, including the Guardian, did not report on this incident. It gave those working on the release a bit of breathing space to try to get them released safely.”
“By the time news started to leak out, through some unfortunately leaks by the Daily Mail and others, the kidnappers had already been located and very sensitive negotiations and discussions were going on. It certainly did place these negotiations at risk that the news leaked out that this crew was missing. Sometimes the safety of our colleagues should precede the news.” Bouckaert added.
Free Syrian Army rebels located the kidnappers well before the gunfight between the group and members of the Jihadi Ahrar al-Sham brigade who were manning a checkpoint, Bouckaert said.
The Ahrar al-Sham brigade does have “significant links” to the Free Syrian Army, he said. “I believe this was a coordinated action with the Free Syrian Army," he said.
Two of the men who captured NBC's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and his crew, were killed during a gun fight prior to their release, the network reports.
Press reports indicated that several Western journalists have been detained by Syria's increasingly isolated regime, which has virtually banned independent reporting inside Syria. Others have been abducted and held briefly by armed militant groups fighting against President Bashar al-Assad.
The myriad rebel militias in Syria have vastly varying motivations -- ranging from nationalist, to purely jihadist, press reports added.