BEIRUT: Seven kidnapped Estonians were released in Lebanon Thursday, nearly four months after they were snatched by gunmen in the eastern Bekaa Valley as they re-entered the country on bicycles from Syria.
Following their release in what Estonia’s foreign minister called “a long international operation,” the seven Estonians, looking well, appeared on the balcony of the French Embassy in Beirut, where they smiled and waved at journalists gathered outside.
“Investigation is ongoing to determine where and who was holding the Estonians,” Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told The Daily Star Thursday night, when asked about the identity of the kidnappers and where the Estonians were held.
“The judiciary has put its hands on the case and will decide where the Estonians were held and with whom. What matters now is their release,” Charbel said hours after he visited the seven at the French Embassy.
“The Estonian security official who was following up their case told me that no ransom was paid for the release,” Charbel said.
The Estonians, in their 30s and 40s, were kidnapped at gunpoint by masked men on March 23 shortly after entering on bicycles into Lebanon through the Syrian border. The abduction, which was surrounded in mystery, revived memories of the spate of kidnappings that took place during the country’s 1975-90 Civil War.
A security source told The Daily Star that the seven were released at 8:30 a.m. local time in Sahl al-Taybeh, near the Bekaa Valley town of Brital.
A French delegation in the Bekaa then took charge of the Estonians and transported them to the French Embassy in Beirut.
French Ambassador to Lebanon Denis Pietton said the release took place “as a result of efforts undertaken solely by Lebanon and Estonia,” adding that France had only provided diplomatic assistance. “France had been solicited for … logistic and diplomatic aid in the case as Estonia does not have an embassy in Lebanon,” Pietton said.
The seven men stayed at the French Embassy, as Estonia, a tiny Baltic nation of 1.3 million, has no embassy in Lebanon. They underwent a medical examination at the embassy and were joined by Estonia’s Foreign Minister Urmas Paet who arrived in Beirut Thursday night. They later left home to the former Soviet republic with Paet.
Soon after his arrival, Paet met with Prime Minister Najib Mikati at the Grand Serail. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Paet repeated what he said earlier that the release of the Estonians was the result of “an international operation” in which Lebanon, Estonia and other countries participated. He said he could not go into details.
Asked about the identity of the kidnappers, Paet said: “Investigation is still going on.”
He thanked the Lebanese authorities, government and security forces for their help in the release. Paet said the Estonians’ release was an “important achievement” for the Lebanese authorities.
“Of course I am relieved that this is finally over, and the seven people can return to their families. This difficult story has ended,” Paet told The Daily Star before arriving in Beirut. “It’s the result of a quite long international operation which has taken many months. We are happy that it has had a positive result.”
A military judge, Fadi Sawan, met the seven Estonians for five hours at the Military Court to hear their testimony on “the circumstances of their kidnapping and detention,” a judicial official told The Daily Star. The reason for the long time it took to hear the Estonians’ testimony was tied to translation consideration.
A judicial source said the investigation with the Estonians had revealed very important information about the identity of the kidnappers, the groups standing behind them and the place where they were detained.
Charbel confirmed Lebanese security forces were not involved in the release in order “not to complicate things,” while Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi said he was pleased with the “happy ending” but stressed that the case was far from over.
“The case is not closed to Lebanon’s judiciary, which will continue its investigation until all details are uncovered and those responsible for the abduction identified,” Qortbawi said in a statement.
After midday, Charbel visited the French Embassy to check on the well-being of the Estonians. “They [Estonians] are in good health. They’ve had showers and have had a meal,” Charbel told reporters.
Charbel told The Daily Star that of the 16 people involved in the abduction, nine have been held while security forces were still hunting down the remaining seven.
“All except one man, whose identity is being examined, are Lebanese,” he said.
Hezbollah praised the release. “The release of the Estonians … is a positive and good step,” said Mahmoud Qoumati, a member of Hezbollah’s Political Bureau. “Hezbollah is against acts that expose Lebanon to crises, tarnish its image abroad and affect Lebanon’s stability, security and interest.”
Lebanese authorities took the statements of the released captives to find out the circumstances behind their kidnapping and how they came to be set free in Sahl al-Taybeh.
The seven men arrived at the embassy complex in Beirut at around 10:00 .a.m., a French source told The Daily Star. The release, he added, took place without the knowledge of Lebanese authorities.
The security source confirmed that Lebanese security authorities had no prior knowledge of the details of the operation and that they only knew of the release by French officials after the men had crossed Dahr al-Baidar, on the Beirut-Damascus highway.
Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves saluted the men’s “resilience and willpower” in a statement Thursday.
Commenting on the release of the Estonians, President Michel Sleiman addressing the first Cabinet meeting said: “I confirm that had it not been for the arrest by security forces of some members of the group that carried out the kidnapping, and field and information measures carried out by these forces and the army troops, they [Estonians] would not have been released safe.”
While thanking the French Embassy’s role in the release, Sleiman called for continued efforts to hunt down, arrest and punish those responsible for the kidnapping.
The plight of the Estonians has drawn widespread support in their homeland, where leaders had taken to wearing yellow ribbons to symbolize hope that they would be released.
The seven Estonians are Kalev Kaosaar, August Tillo, Madis Paluoja, Priit Raistik, Jaan Jagomagi, Andre Pukk and Martin Metspalu.
The relatives of the seven Estonian tourists hailed their release, while officials thanked France and other allies for helping win their freedom. “Our father, sons, husbands and brothers are free! These four months were long and exhausting,” the men’s relatives said in a joint statement.
“We thank everyone here in Estonia and elsewhere for their support. It helped. We thank the Lebanese people and the Lebanese state and also authorities of the many countries that helped free our loved ones,” they said.
Since the kidnapping in the eastern Bekaa Valley, the case had been shrouded in mystery, but several people were arrested in Lebanon in connection with the abduction.
The abductors – believed to be a previously unknown 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 cyclists had appealed for help in videos posted on the Internet in April and May. A third video was emailed to several of their relatives in June.
Sources following the case said investigators at the time determined the first video was uploaded in the Syrian capital Damascus, leading to speculation that the men had been moved across the border from Lebanon. – With additional reporting by Youssef Diab