US journalist Richard Engel, freed after being held hostage for five days in Syria, said Tuesday his captors were pro-regime militiamen who threatened to execute him and his crew.
"This was a group known as the shabiha. This is a government militia. They are loyal to President (Bashar) al-Assad," Engel told his employer NBC in his first interview since being released.
Engel said he and two fellow reporters were not physically mistreated other than being bound and blindfolded, but suffered "a lot of psychological torture" at the hands of their masked abductors, who threatened to kill them.
"They made us choose which one of us would be shot first. When we refused, there were mock shootings... They fired the gun up in the air. It can be a very traumatic experience."
Engel said he was told his captors were trained by Iran and allied with the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, adding that they wanted to exchange him and his crew for four Iranian agents, two Lebanese individuals and others captured by Syrian rebels, without providing further details.
"They were going to bring us to a Hezbollah stronghold inside Syria... We were on our way there when we ran into this rebel checkpoint."
A shootout ensued in which rebels shot dead two of his captors. Engel and his crew were freed unharmed shortly thereafter and made their way back across the border into Turkey, where they arrived in good health.
The Assad regime is a close ally of both Iran and Hezbollah, and Syrian rebels have accused both of aiding the government's brutal crackdown.
The shabiha are a feared pro-government paramilitary force accused of having carried out several massacres of civilians during the 21-month-old uprising.
Engel, 39, is one of the most high-profile US journalists to report from Syria, where rebels have been fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad in a civil war that has claimed some 43,000 lives, according to activists.
NBC said Engel and other unnamed employees went missing shortly after crossing into Syria from Turkey on Thursday, and that it had not been able to contact them until it learned they had been freed on Monday.
The network said there was no claim of responsibility, no contact with the captors and no ransom paid.