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US news crew is freed in Syria

Captors’ motives unknown; rebels claim more gains

Rebels tossed a poster of President Bashar Assad from a hospital in Syria Tuesday after a battle with government troops.

SAMER AL-HAMWI/SHAAM NEWS NETWORK/HANDOUT/REUTERS

Rebels tossed a poster of President Bashar Assad from a hospital in Syria Tuesday after a battle with government troops.

NEW YORK — Richard Engel, the chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, and three of his crew members were freed Monday after five days in captivity in Syria, the news organization said Tuesday.

The journalists were unharmed. The news organization released a short statement that said, ‘‘We are pleased to report they are safely out of the country.’’

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The identities of the kidnappers and their motives were unknown. But an article on the NBC News website quotes Engel as saying their captors ‘‘were talking openly about their loyalty to the government’’ of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But the journalists’ kidnapping once again highlights the perils of reporting from Syria, which is said by the Committee to Protect Journalists to be ‘‘the world’s most dangerous place for the press.’’

NBC declined to specify the number of crew members that were with Engel. Two of the crew members, John Kooistra and Ghazi Balkiz, appeared with Engel on NBC’s ‘‘Today’’ show Tuesday morning. A third, Aziz Akyavas, spoke at a news conference in Turkey.

Akyavas said in an interview on the Turkish television channel NTV that a technician who traveled with the crew was still missing. NBC did not respond to a request for comment about that report.

AFP/Getty Images

Richard Engel, the top NBC foreign correspondent, said his crew had been threatened, but not injured.

The NBC developments came on a day when Syrian rebels were continuing to claim gains in their battle against the forces of Assad. They have pressed hard against the regime in the past weeks, capturing air bases and military installations in and around Damascus.

Held five Days

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Syrian fighter jets bombed a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus on Tuesday for the second time this week after rebels made significant advances, seizing large areas within the camp, activists said.

The offensive against the Yarmouk camp, which began Friday, is aimed at driving out a pro-government Palestinian faction. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other activists in the camp said fighter jets dropped bombs on the camp Tuesday afternoon, but there was no immediate word of casualties. Similar airstrikes on Sunday killed at least eight people in Yarmouk.

Also Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it had sent warships to the eastern Mediterranean Sea, in what appeared to be preparation for a possible evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria.

Moscow staunchly opposes international intervention in Syria, a longtime strategy ally, and has blocked UN Security Council resolutions meant to force Assad from power. Officials said Tuesday that Russia’s position had not changed.

However, Moscow has signaled in recent days that it sees Assad’s forces losing ground, and that it is beginning to prepare for a chaotic transition period. One immediate concern is the large number of Russian citizens scattered across Syria.

Engel and the crew members have covertly entered Syria several times this year to report on the insurgency.

In order to transmit their report in safety, Engel and his crew apparently crossed the border into Turkey. Their effort to cross back into Syria on Thursday led to their capture.

About 15 men, Engel said on the ‘‘Today’’ show, ‘‘just literally jumped out of the trees and bushes’’ and ‘‘dragged us out of the car.’’ The kidnappers killed one of the rebels whom the crew had been traveling with, he said.

NBC’s website said there was ‘‘no claim of responsibility, no contact with the captors, and no request for ransom.”

Engel said on ‘‘Today’’ that the kidnappers had a plan to exchange the crew for several people being held by Syrian rebels.

But the crew members were freed when the captors ‘‘ran into a checkpoint manned by members of the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, a Syrian rebel group,’’ NBC’s website reported. “There was a confrontation and a firefight ensued. Two of the captors were killed, while an unknown number of others escaped.’’ The rebels then helped escort the crew to the border with Turkey.

In his comments on ‘‘Today’’ Engel said: ‘‘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.’’

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