Estonian kidnapping remains unanswered question

  • 2011-03-30
  • By Karl Haljasmets

ABANDONED: The kidnappers of seven bikers have yet to announce their demands.

TARTU - Seven Estonian bicyclists were kidnapped by masked gunmen in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley on March 23. This was in a location about 53 kilometers east of Beirut. Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Paet said that there are still no messages or signals from the kidnappers and so the speculation being spread in different media channels are just that - speculation - and nothing more. “At the moment we don’t have any truthful versions, which is covered with evidence, on why Estonians were kidnapped,” he said.

The media has suspected that the Palestinian group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC) is behind the kidnapping. Its representative, Abu Ramez Moustapha, denied last Friday on television channel LBC that they are behind the hijacking. “The accusation is part of a campaign aimed at targeting the group on the political, media, and security levels,” he stated.
The  abandoned bicycles of the Estonian tourists were found near the industrial complex in Zahle, where they were presumably abducted. Local  security forces stated shortly after the incident that masked gunmen in a black Mercedes and white vans kidnapped the foreigners.

After the incident, Estonia sent a contact person to the site. The diplomat’s task is to maintain contact on-site, and exchange information with the Lebanese ministries and authorities, as well as with the embassies of NATO and EU countries there. They didn’t want to reveal who this person is, but according to Estonian daily Postimees’ sources, it is Daniel-Erik Schaer, who is an Afghanistan-experienced diplomat. Schaer arrived in Lebanon on March 25.

The other main suspect is the Palestinian group Fatah-Intifada, which denied claims that its group is behind the kidnapping of the seven Estonians. On the news portal YA Libnan they denied all the allegations. “It is not true and only serves those keen on destabilizing Lebanon. The group has never, and will never, resort to such actions,” said their statement.
Shortly after the kidnapping the Ministry of Foreign Affairs established a crisis commission. Its goal is to reach a quick and positive solution to the crisis so that the kidnapped group would be freed as soon as possible.

In a Foreign Ministry press release, Paet stated that intensive work in the search for the seven Estonian citizens abducted in Lebanon is continuing. The foreign minister added that work included actively gathering information and exchanging information in co-operation with the Lebanese authorities and representatives of partner states, as well as with the police and army operations going on in the region. Paet himself arrived in Lebanon in the morning of March 28. He was to meet in Beirut with President Michel Sulaymani, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Secretary of State Ziad Baroudi.

Paet confirmed that Lebanon is doing everything possible to find the Estonian cycling tourists as quickly as possible and using all possible measures. “The president confirmed its comprehensive readiness to release the kidnapped [individuals],” he said.
Estonian historian and former diplomat Mart Helme doesn’t believe, as he says in an article to news site, that Lebanese authorities can solve the situation. “Since the beginning of the 1970s, Lebanon has been, because of its civil war, extremely fragmented where different political movements have their own armed units and districts. Lebanon’s government operations in these districts are impractical, if not impossible.”

Helme is also of the opinion that the abduction of the Estonian cyclists could have political reasons. “The belongings and bicycles of the Estonian bikers were left behind on the road. Therefore, with every hour grows the possibility that the incident had a political background and, sooner or later, someone will appear who will take responsibility for the event and state their demands. Equally likely is that those demands are connected with those hotbeds of war where Estonia participates, or has a certain involvement as a member state of NATO (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya). Moreover, there is a possibility that in the beginning, the kidnappers didn’t even know what nationality the [cyclists] were. Whites are whites and hated equally by these radical moslems,” he pointed out.

Moscow’s independent Middle East expert Said Gafurov tries to calm the situation. He believes that the only thing that threaten those seven Estonians in Lebanon is just discomfort. He said in an interview with Estonian Public Broadcasting that in present-day Lebanon, it isn’t possible to kill hostages. “Lebanon is recovering after a war, the state is led by bankers and the toursim industry and they want peace. Any person who writes down that he did this will, at the same time, sign his own death sentence, too, ” he explained.

Kidnapping incidents have been quite rare since the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90. In 2010, two Polish tourists were briefly kidnapped in the Bekaa valley. However, they were released after security forces intervened. The situation with the Estonians is more complicated because no group has so far claimed responsibility for the attack.

News portal on March 29 reported that Internal Security Forces Director General (ISF) Achraf Rifi said that the ISF-Information Branch has arrested three people involved in providing the van and Mercedes automobile used for the kidnapping, adding that “The Mercedes had been stolen.” There has been unconfirmed speculation that Lebanese forces are already conducting a rescue operation to release the hostages.