Lack of clues hinders search for hostages

  • 2011-05-18
  • From wire reports

TRADING CHIPS: The kidnapped cyclists are being used as leverage in regional politics.

TALLINN - Seven Estonian cyclists kidnapped in Lebanon are most probably in Syria, says a report in The Daily Star, referring to security sources. The matter has been investigated by a joint team of Lebanese, Estonian and French police, the paper stated.

The source said the investigation resulted in information which strongly suggests that the kidnapped Estonians are currently in Syria. “There is important information in that regard, but it is not in the investigation’s interests to reveal it, so it won’t undermine the work of the police team which is comprised of Lebanese, Estonian and French investigators who are accurately following the case’s leads,” said the source.

Another security source told The Daily Star that a Lebanese security team technically examined a video uploaded to YouTube showing the Estonians begging Lebanese, Saudi, Jordanian and French leaders to secure their release.
When asked if there was Lebanese-Syrian security coordination to find out the fate of the Estonians and set them free, the source said investigations were “being pursued by the Estonians and the French through political and diplomatic means upon the request and insistence of the Estonians.”

The sources added that the content of the video showing the abducted cyclists, as well as the political leaders whom they appealed to for help, including Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Aziz, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, and caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri, confirms that the issue is political and that the party who ordered the kidnapping sought to exploit the incident to gain leverage in regional bickering.

Seven Estonian cyclists were kidnapped in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon on March 23.
A previously unheard of group, Haraket Al-Nahda Wal-Islah (Movement for Renewal and Reform), has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and demanded an unspecified ransom to free the seven Estonians. An undated video was uploaded to YouTube in mid-April and shows the Estonians begging Lebanese, Saudi, Jordanian and French leaders to secure their release.

The video, which was authenticated by the Estonian Foreign Ministry and has been removed by YouTube, shows each of the seven men in sportswear, apparently unharmed, pleading for help in English and asking authorities to meet the kidnappers’ demands.

It remains unclear what the demands and conditions for the victims’ release are.
Abductions have been rare in Lebanon since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war during which nearly 100 foreigners, mostly Americans and Western Europeans, were kidnapped.

So it remains that nearly two months after the kidnapping of the cyclists, the case remains shrouded in mystery with little information gleaned on their whereabouts or those behind the abduction, reports AFP. The seven men, all in their 30s, were nabbed shortly after entering Lebanon on their bicycles from neighboring Syria.
Authorities initially appeared confident that the case would quickly be resolved after recovering a mini-van and car used in the kidnapping and arresting several people. But the trail appears to have gone cold with two key suspects - a Lebanese and a Syrian - still on the run and no clear evidence as to who ordered the kidnapping.

There is also fear that, given the political vacuum in Lebanon, which has been without a government for four months, and the upheaval in neighboring Syria, the case will be put on the backburner and forgotten.
“It’s very dramatic because up until now the investigation was well carried out, but our biggest concern now is that Lebanese authorities remain mobilized,” said a Western diplomat familiar with the case on condition of anonymity.
He said the kidnappers were probably targeting Europeans of a different nationality, perhaps French, when they grabbed the Estonians. “If I were a hostage taker, I wouldn’t target Estonians,” he said. “They were targeting foreigners and it would have suited them if these foreigners were other than Estonians.”

Lebanese officials as well as a representative of the Estonian Foreign Ministry following the probe in Beirut declined comment for this article. Officials from the French Embassy, which has provided logistical support to the Estonians, who have no embassy in Beirut, also refused comment.

Four of those arrested and charged in the case are Sunni fundamentalists, according to authorities who believe the men were hired to execute the abduction, but did not mastermind the plan. “These men were simply mercenaries carrying out orders from above,” said a source familiar with the case who did not wish to be identified.
The source said that while investigators had not been able to track down the origin of the two emails they had managed to determine that the YouTube video had come from Damascus. “They [investigators] know the name and the address of the people behind this tape, which originated in Damascus,” he said, without elaborating. “French and Estonian investigators are aware of this and the Estonians have appealed to Damascus for help.”

The Western diplomat said that while there was speculation initially that Syria had ordered the kidnapping in order to later free the men and get credit, there was no evidence at this point to back that claim. “There is no tangible evidence pointing to Damascus at this time,” he said. “Our feeling is that this remains a Lebanese case and there is nothing to implicate Syria.”
Mariann Sudakov, spokeswoman for the Estonian Foreign Ministry told AFP that her government was doing its utmost to resolve the case. “Our goal is that the seven kidnapped citizens of Estonia are released,” she said. “The Crisis Commission... continues to work with all involved agencies and international partners towards resolving the situation.”
“Cooperation also continues with other Middle Eastern countries as well as European Union and NATO partners,” she