Natacha Yazbeck, AFP
Last updated: 14 July, 2011

Kidnapped Estonian cyclists freed in Lebanon

Seven kidnapped Estonians were freed in Lebanon on Thursday, almost four months since being abducted by armed men as they entered the country on a bicycle tour from neighbouring Syria.

Estonia’s foreign ministry confirmed the seven men had been released and were being cared for at the French embassy in the Lebanese capital Beirut.

A police official in Beirut told AFP the Estonians had been freed in the town of Sahel al-Taybi in the eastern Bekaa Valley and appeared to be in good health.

He said the cyclists, who were abducted from eastern Lebanon in March, would undergo a medical examination at the French embassy and would later be joined by Estonia’s Foreign Minister Urmas Paet.

Paet and the cyclists were scheduled to travel back to Estonia on Thursday night, said the official who declined to give further details on how the seven came to be released.

Estonia, a tiny Baltic nation of 1.3 million, has no embassy in Lebanon and France has played a prominent role in the case.

France’s ambassador to Lebanon, Denis Pietton, said he was happy his country had been able to aid Lebanon and Estonia in reaching Thursday’s “happy ending”.

“France had been solicited for… logistic and diplomatic aid in the case as Estonia does not have an embassy in Lebanon,” Pietton told reporters outside the Lebanese foreign ministry.

Lebanon’s Interior Minister Marwan Charbel meanwhile said he could not confirm reports a ransom was paid to secure their freedom.

“To my knowledge they (the abductors) did not make any demands for a ransom for their release,” Charbel told Lebanese television, adding the men were expected to return to Estonia later Thursday.

“Our sole priority right now is to ensure they arrive at the embassy safe and sound, and then we will hear whatever details they have,” the minister added.

The abductors — believed to be a previously unknown fundamentalist group called Haraket Al-Nahda Wal-Islah (Movement for Renewal and Reform) — had reportedly demanded ransom in exchange for the release of the Estonians.

The men, all in their 30s, were kidnapped on March 23 in Lebanon’s lawless Bekaa Valley.

The case had for months been shrouded in mystery, but several people, including Islamists, were arrested in Lebanon in connection with the kidnapping.

The Estonians were shown appealing for help in videos posted on the Internet in April and May. A third video was emailed to several of their relatives in June.

In the first video, the seven called on the leaders of Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and France — but not Estonia — to help them.

They did not present any demands on behalf of their captors nor did they specify what country they were in.

Sources following the case said investigators at the time determined that the video was uploaded in the Syrian capital Damascus, leading to speculation the men were moved across the border from Lebanon.

Paet last month had said authorities had “preliminary” evidence in the case of the seven Estonians.

Estonian leaders for weeks have been wearing a yellow ribbon, which in Estonia has come to symbolise hope that the kidnapped men would come home.