Estonia hails release of kidnapped cyclists in Lebanon

14th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

Estonia's foreign ministry confirmed Thursday that seven of its citizens held for almost four months in Lebanon had been freed and were being cared for in the French embassy in Beirut.

"All seven Estonian citizens kidnapped in Lebanon in March were freed early Thursday morning," ministry spokeswoman Minna-Liina Lind told AFP.

"The seven Estonians are at the embassy of France at the moment," Lind said.

"The operation to free them was carried out in cooperation with the Estonians, Lebanese and other partners. All of them are in good health."

"We are currently organising their transport to Estonia," she added.

Foreign Minister Urmas Paet told the Estonian daily Postimees that the men were released before 5:00 am (0200 GMT) Thursday.

"There are lot of details that we will not disclose," he added.

Earlier Thursday, Lebanese police told AFP the men were freed in the town of Arsal, in the eastern Bekaa Valley.

The men, all in their 30s, were kidnapped on March 23 while on a cycling holiday in the same region.

Juri Kaosaar, father of kidnapped Kalev Kaosaar, said they were in good shape.

"I've already talked to my son and both the health and mood of all the men is very good," he told 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.

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.

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

The abductors -- believed to be a previously unknown fundamentalist group called Haraket Al-Nahda Wal-Islah (Movement for Renewal and Reform) -- had reportedly demanded a ransom but Lebanese authorities said they could not confirm that.

The Estonians were shown appealing for help in videos posted on the Internet in April and May, but did not present any demands for their captors.

A third video was emailed to relatives in June but not made public.

Estonia also turned to fellow European Union members and NATO allies, notably France.

"I would like to thank Estonia's foreign partners and friends," Ilves said. "Without your help, it would all have been much more complicated."

© 2011 AFP

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