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LEBANON: Seven Estonian hostages freed after nearly four months in captivity

July 14, 2011 |  8:10 am

A case that for months was shrouded in mystery has finally come to an end.

After nearly four months in captivity, seven Estonian cyclists abducted by a group of gunmen as they entered Lebanon from Syria where they had done a bicycle tour were freed in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley on Thursday.

The Estonian foreign ministry said in a statement that the men were all in "good health" and that they were being looked after at the French embassy in Beirut.

Their release, the statement says, came as a result of cooperation by Estonia, Lebanon and others.

“We would like to thank the representatives of Lebanon, France, Germany, Turkey and many other countries for their significant contributions and exceptional cooperation," Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said in a separate announcement.

A police official in Beirut told Agence France-Presse that the group of seven had been released in the town of Sahel al-Taybi in the Bekaa Valley and that they would be joined later by Paet at the French embassy where they were scheduled to undergo a medical examination. 

Western media reports said the Estonian foreign minister was expected to fly to Lebanon Thursday and accompany the group on their flight home.

“Tonight a private plane will fly to Beirut and our fellow countrymen should arrive home to their families and loved ones tomorrow before noon,” he said.

Estonia does not have diplomatic representation in Lebanon and it is believed that French diplomats were among the most active seeking the release of the abducted Estonian nationals.

The cases of the seven Estonian hostages has largely been shrouded in mystery since the men, all in their 30s, were kidnapped in late March as they cycled through Lebanon's Bekaa Valley -- an area notorious for its lawlessness.

A previously unknown group called Haraket Al-Nahda Wal-Islah (Movement for Renewal and Reform) had reportedly claimed responsibility for the abduction and demanded an unspecified amount of money as ransom.

The kidnappers showed the seven Estonian hostages in video footage posted to the Internet in April and May in which they were seen appealing for help without making any demands on behalf of their abductors. A third video was reportedly sent to their relatives this month.

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

At the time, Lebanese media reports quoting unnamed sources said investigators had determined that the video had been uploaded not in Lebanon but in the Syrian capital Damascus, prompting some to believe that the men had been moved over the border.

The Lebanese authorities hauled several people into custody during their kidnapping investigation, although most are believed to have been released due to lack of evidence. 

It has not been disclosed whether a ransom was paid for the release of the cyclists. 

--Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: The seven Estonians were cycling through Lebanon's lawless Bekaa Valley in March when they were abducted by a group of armed men. Credit: Al Jazeera website