Seven Estonian cyclists who were kidnapped while travelling in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in March have been released Thursday.
The men, who reportedly unharmed by their kidnappers, were taken to the French embassy in Beirut by a French delegation in the Bekaa Valley following negotiations shortly after their release at 8:30 a.m.
Estonian president Toomas Ilves expressed happiness with news of the seven men’s release, welcoming them home.
Lebanese authorities had no prior details or knowledge of the operation, one security source told Lebanon’s Daily Star.
According to Reuters, French officials will hand the released men to Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet upon his arrival in Beirut. The men had been fed and examined following their release, Paet said during a news conference prior to his departure from Tallinn, the Estonian capital.
The tourists were taken hostage on March 23 by masked gunmen in vehicles with no license plates while cycling on a road near Zahle in the Bekaa Valley.
A previously unknown group, Harakat al-Nahda wal-Islah (Movement for Renewal and Reform), had claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, but had not specified demands or ransom for the men’s release. Estonian officials had not specified if a ransom was paid for their recovery.
Several arrests had been made in association with the kidnapping, when Lebanese authorities had charged 11 people with the tourists’ abduction and shooting at security patrol.
Initial reports in March mentioned that Lebanese authorities had no leads to the whereabouts of the missing men, causing much mystery and speculation that the men had been transported to Syria. These claims were denied by Internal Security Forces Chief Maj. Ashraf Rifi, who refused to confirm reports that the Estonian captives were transported across the border into Syria.
In May, Estonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had confirmed that one of three released videos of the seven captured cyclists was uploaded on YouTube from Damascus.
A Lebanese official told the AFP at the time of the abduction that the vehicles were reportedly headed towards Kfar Zabed, a town 5 km from the Syrian border. It was also speculated that the men were abducted by a pro-Syrian group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), who have an outpost near the town. A spokesperson for the PFLP-GC had categorically denied the group’s involvement.
The men are identified as Madis Paluoja, August Tillo, Priit Raistik, Jaan Jagomagi, Kalev Kaosaar, Andre Pukk, and Martin Metspalu.