BODY SNATCHERS: Urmas Paet says a positive sign in solving the case is that the kidnappers have made contact three times.
TALLINN - Estonia is preparing for a long-term operation to free seven nationals kidnapped six weeks ago in Lebanon, as the Estonian foreign minister admitted last week that the men could be detained for several months, says a story in The Daily Star. Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said in an interview with The Daily Star that Syrian authorities had been contacted directly over the whereabouts of the seven cyclists snatched by armed men from the outskirts of the Bekaa town of Zahle on March 23.
“Emotionally, every additional day is difficult but we have taken a clear decision that we are going to handle this activity for as long as it takes,” Paet said. “Our clear goal is to solve this issue and at this stage it doesn’t matter how long it takes. As we know from larger statistics about different kidnappings, this kind of case may last several months, or even longer.”
Security officials have suggested that the men may be being kept outside of Lebanon, as information from the abduction site pointed to the kidnappers making off toward the border with Syria. Paet said that in addition to Jordan, Turkey and Egypt, Estonia had begun dialogue with authorities in Damascus.
“We officially asked Syria for assistance if they may get some information. They say they are ready to help. We are also working together with the Lebanese authorities, but we also have close cooperation with other countries in the region with the goal of trying to find out what happened to our people,” Paet pointed out.
Lebanese security forces have made several arrests in their probe into the case, following several raids in eastern Bekaa. In spite of this, no concrete information on the abductees has been obtained. A video of the seven men, which was posted on social media Web site YouTube and featured pleas to world leaders to secure their release, provoked varying responses in Estonia, Paet said.
The minister denied that there was any evidence to suggest that the seven men were taken on the basis of nationality and revealed that a Foreign Ministry warning against travel to Lebanon had been issued as far back as January. “In the end [the travel warning] is only a recommendation and everyone is still free to go where they want. But discussion on this is not very timely. I don’t have any indication to say that they were taken because they were Estonians. This kind of theory doesn’t stand up to analysis,” he said.
“As long as we don’t know the exact reason [for the kidnapping], everything can be possible,” he added.
Estonian Foreign Minister Paet said on May 4 that although six weeks may feel like a long time, the case of the Estonians who were kidnapped in Lebanon is not extraordinary, as compared to other similar cases. “For us, the time has been very long - six weeks - but when we look at the background, then these cases last for months and, in the worst case, even more than a year,” he said.
Paet pointed out that the video on YouTube a couple of weeks ago shows that the kidnappers wish to keep in contact. “There is no reason to think that this story won’t be solved,” said Paet. “Considering that the kidnappers have made contact three times during that period, it shows that they apparently don’t have a shortage of time at the moment,” he said.
Paet said that he has met with the families of the kidnapped and that the ministry’s employees keep in contact with them all the time.
He noted that, according to the U.S. anti-terrorism fight center data, 1,932 people were kidnapped from 2008-2010 in the world.
Paet has also rejected claims, made by EUobserver, that Estonia is blocking the implementation of European Union sanctions against Syria because the bicycle tourists, who were kidnapped in Lebanon, may have been taken to Syria, reports Postimees Online. EUobserver wrote on May 5 that the case of kidnapped Estonians is the secret reason why Estonia is, besides Cyprus and Greece, the only state that doesn’t support new EU sanctions against Syrian authorities.
“I think that it was very low of that journalist to associate these two things regarding the whole case,” Paet said. “I do understand that, for the sake of journalistic scandal, it would be nice to associate Estonia and the kidnapping of the bicyclists but, as I said, it is not appropriate.”
Paet said that Estonia supported the recent decision of the EU to enforce an arms embargo against Syria as well as a ban on the supply and sale of other technical equipment. “Estonia has joined that sanction and Estonia clearly supports these sanctions,” said Paet.
As to the proposal by the British to enforce a visa ban and freeze the assets of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and 15 other persons in authority, Paet said that nothing is decided yet. “The question is whether sanctions against any country should be decided, waving flags and in one day, without a more thorough analysis,” said Paet.