BEIRUT: The seven Estonian men abducted four months ago in east Lebanon were released in the Bekaa Valley Thursday and are doing well.
After midday, Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan 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.
As he spoke, the seven men appeared on one of the embassy’s balconies, smiling and waving to reporters.
The men, wearing white shorts and T-shirts and sporting beards, looked relieved to have come out of their ordeal.
Lebanon’s foreign minister, Adnan Mansour, confirmed the release, saying the country could now put the distressful incident behind it.
The seven Estonian men were kidnapped at gunpoint by masked men shortly after entering into Lebanon through 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-Taybbeh, near the Bekaa Valley town of Britel, both Hezbollah strongholds.
A French delegation in the Bekaa then took charge of the Estonians and transported them to the French Embassy located in the Lebanese capital, 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.
Estonia lacks a permanent mission in Lebanon.
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-Taybbeh.
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.
France will hand over the seven men to Estonia’s foreign minister, Urmas Paet, who was on his way to Beirut.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati is expected to meet Paet after the Estonian official arrives in Beirut at 10 p.m.
The previously unknown group Harakat al-Nahda wal-Islah (The Movement for Renewal and Reform) had claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of the Estonians but set no demands.