Kidnapped Estonian cyclists freed in Lebanon

AFP , Thursday 14 Jul 2011

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

Seven Estonians
Seven Estonians who were released after being kidnapped in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley in March, wave from the balcony of the French embassy in Beirut (Photo: Reuters)

 Seven Estonian men, all in their 30s and 40s, appeared on the balcony of the French embassy in the capital Beirut hours after their release, where they smiled and waved at journalists gathered outside before joining hands and taking a bow.

A police official told AFP the group had been released Thursday morning in the town of Sahel al-Taybi, in the lawless Bekaa Valley, and appeared to be in good health.
The authorities have not disclosed any details in the case.

The cyclists, kidnapped at gunpoint in eastern Lebanon on March 23, are currently staying at the French embassy as Estonia, a tiny Baltic nation of 1.3 million, has no embassy in Lebanon.

They will undergo a medical examination at the embassy before being joined by Estonia's Foreign Minister Urmas Paet later in the day and traveling home to the former Soviet republic on Friday.

A top Lebanese judge will also hear the seven Estonians' testimonies on Thursday, a judicial source told AFP.

Lebanon's Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi said he was pleased with the "happy ending" but underlined 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.

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves saluted the men's "resilience and willpower" in a statement Thursday.

Their plight has drawn widespread support in their homeland, where leaders had taken to wearing yellow ribbons to symbolise 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.

Andres Metspalu, father of Martin Metspalu, told the Delfi news portal he felt "enormous joy and relief".
"If you remember that some are held hostage for years, and ours for just under four months, all went well," he said.

Kalev Kaosaar's father Juri Kaosaar also confirmed the seven were in good shape and that their spirits were high.
"I've already talked to my son and both the health and mood of all the men is very good," he told the Estonian daily Postimees.

"We were also told that before they can come home, they will undergo medical checks in Lebanon. And they also have to collect their bikes," which were found at the kidnap scene, he added.

France, which has played a leading role in investigating the case, welcomed news of the "happy ending" on Thursday.
"France had been solicited for... logistic and diplomatic aid in the case as Estonia does not have an embassy in Lebanon," said Paris' ambassador to Lebanon, Denis Pietton.

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 kidnapping.
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.
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 the first video was uploaded in the Syrian capital Damascus, leading to speculation the men were moved across the border from Lebanon.

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