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Kidnapped NBC Reporter Believed He'd Be Traded for Iranian Agents

Dan Nelken/NBC(NEW YORK) -- Richard Engel, the chief foreign correspondent at NBC News who was released with his crew amid gunfire at a Syria checkpoint after they were taken prisoner in the civil war-torn country, said he believes that he and his team were going to be exchanged by their captors for four Iranian agents and two Lebanese citizens.

Speaking on the Today show Tuesday morning shortly after he and the crew were delivered over the Syrian border to Turkey, Engel said he has a "very good idea" who his captors were.

"This was the Shabiha," he said. "This is a government militia. They are loyal to Bashar al-Assad, they are Shiite. They were talking openly about their loyalty to the government. They were openly expressing their Shia faith. They are trained by Iranian revolutionary guard. They are trained by Hezbollah."

NBC confirmed early Tuesday morning that after being kidnapped and held for five days inside Syria, Engel and his production crew members have been freed unharmed. Engel, 39, and his crew vanished Thursday after crossing into northwest Syria from Turkey, the network said, adding that there had been no contact between Engel and NBC since last week.

Speaking on Today, Engel recounted Thursday's ambush.

"We were driving in Syria in what we thought was a rebel-controlled area. We were with some of the rebels. And as we were driving down the road, a group of gunmen literally jumped out of the bushes. About 15 gunmen. They were heavily armed, and they dragged us out of the car," he said. "They executed one of [the rebels] on the spot."

Engel and his crew were then transported to an unknown location, which is now believed to be near the town of Ma'arrat Misrin, about 30 miles southwest of Aleppo.

"They took us to a series of safe houses and interrogation places, and they kept us blindfolded and bound," Engel said. "We weren't beaten or physically tortured. There was a lot of psychological torture, threats of being killed. They made us choose which one of us would be shot first and when we refused, there were mock shootings."

Engel and his crew were being transported Monday when the vehicle in which they were travelling came upon a checkpoint manned by members of the Syrian rebel group the Ahrar al-Sham brigade. A firefight ensued, and two of the captors were killed, while an unknown number of others escaped, the network said.

"The kidnappers saw this checkpoint, and started gunfire with it. We climbed out of the vehicle, and the rebels took us. We spent the night with them; we didn't get much sleep, and they took us here [to Turkey]," he said.

Engel and the crew, who were unharmed in the incident, remained in Syria until Tuesday morning. They were driven to the Syria-Turkey border by the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, and then they re-entered Turkey.

The network "expressed its gratitude to those who worked to gather information and secure the release of our colleagues."

Engel joined NBC in May 2003 and, after more than a decade of covering the Middle East, was named chief foreign correspondent of NBC News in April 2008.

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ABC News Radio