NBC reporter Richard Engel freed from Syria captors

media captionNBC's Richard Engel: "The last five days are ones we'd rather forget"

Three US journalists have escaped from heavily-armed captors during a firefight five days after being abducted in Syria.

NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel said his team was held by a Shia militia group thought to be loyal to the Syrian government.

The team was captured shortly after crossing into north-west Syria on Thursday, escorted by rebel groups.

They were blindfolded, bound, and subjected to mock executions, NBC said.

"We weren't physically beaten or tortured," said Engel, who has lived in the Middle East since 1996 and speaks fluent Arabic.

"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."

He was told the kidnappers wanted to exchange him and his crew for four Iranian and two Lebanese prisoners being held by Syrian rebels.

"They captured us in order to carry out this exchange," Engel said.

"They were talking openly about their loyalty to the government."

News blackout

Engel said they were driving through an area they thought was under rebel control, when about 15 heavily armed gunmen "jumped out of the trees and bushes on the side of the road".

The men were wearing ski masks and dragged them out of their car.

At least one member of their rebel escort was shot dead "on the spot", Engel told NBC.

But the journalists were not harmed and the NBC team was taken to a truck waiting nearby.

The NBC journalists lost their captors as they were being moved to a new location on Monday evening, when they ran into a checkpoint manned by a rebel group.

After a firefight at the checkpoint, two captors were killed and the NBC crew escaped.

They crossed into Turkey on early Tuesday morning.

NBC said it had had no contact with the kidnappers or anyone representing them after Engel's disappearance and received no request for ransom.

image captionThe three men made it back into Turkey on Tuesday morning

The broadcaster tried to keep the crew's disappearance a secret, asking major US news organisations to not report their disappearance, fearing for their safety.

Some online news organisations and Twitter users did report on Monday about speculation that the crew had disappeared.

A similar agreement was put in place after New York Times reporter David Rohde was held in Afghanistan for several months from 2008 to 2009.

The Syrian government has barred most foreign media coverage of the civil war in Syria, which has killed more than 40,000 people since the uprising began in March 2011.

Many journalists sneak into Syria with the help of smugglers.

Several journalists have been killed covering the conflict. Among them are French TV reporter Gilles Jacquier, photographer Remi Ochlik and Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin.

Anthony Shadid, a correspondent for The New York Times, also died after an apparent asthma attack while on assignment in Syria.