NBC’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel was taken hostage December 13, 2012 in Syria near Ma’arrat Misrin after NBC aired his coverage on the civil war there. As he, Turkish reporter Aziz Akyavas, producer Ghazi Balkiz, cameraman John Kooistra and others were being sneaked back to Turkey by Syrian rebels, a group of masked gunmen emerged from the bushes and trees, immediately executing one of the rebels and taking the rest hostage.
Late on December 16, news began to emerge from Turkey that Engel and Akyavas were missing. Although NBC tried to impose a media blackout on the news, “Richard Engel” was trending on Twitter by December 17, with Gawker, Twitchy and Xinhua all reporting the disappearance.
Once Engel and his crew were captured, they were moved around from place to place. Blindfolded, they were ordered at gunpoint to choose who would be first to die, forced to witness the mock execution of Ghazi and had shots fired into the air to scare and intimidate them.
According the Engel, his captors were pro-Assad Shiite militiamen called shabiha. Trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and allied with Hezbollah, they wanted to exchange the news crew for four Iranian agents , two Lebanese from the Amal movement, and other shabiha captured by the rebels.
Amal is a Lebanese Shiite political movement and militia also allied to Hezbollah. They, like shabiha, support Assad because he is Alawite, a small offshoot of Shiite Islam. It is imperative to Amal that Assad retain power over Syria’s majority Sunni Arab population. If Assad is defeated and the Sunis come into power, Iran would likely lose Syria as an ally and Lebanese Sunis would have a potentially very powerful friend.
On Tuesday, December 18, word emerged that Engle, Akyavas and the rest of the crew had been rescued and had reentered Turkey. As they were being moved from one location to another, his captors were stopped at a rebel checkpoint. A fire-fight broke out, killing two hostage-takers and freeing the journalists. The other Assad loyalists escaped. Rebel forces then escorted the group back to Turkey. Turkish television channel NTV reports that a technician with the crew remains missing; NBC has declined comment.