HOME AT LAST: Details are emerging of the hostages’ extended stay between Syria and Lebanon.
TARTU - July 14 saw the release of the seven Estonian cyclists who had been kept hostage in Lebanon and Syria since March. The men had spent 114 days in captivity. Flown back to Estonia in the early hours of Friday, July 15, many details of their capture and imprisonment have emerged. Nevertheless, many questions about the negotiations and release remain.
In a press release on the morning of Thursday July 14, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia announced that at approximately 4 a.m. that morning the Estonian hostages had been freed. It emerged later that during the night the hostages had been driven from Syria to the Lebanese countryside in the Bekaa valley and given a mobile phone with an Estonian number. According to the orders, they were supposed to wait until sunrise and then call the number, which the men did. The number turned out to be one for the Estonian Security Police, who promptly organized to pick up the men, with the aid of the local French Embassy.
The men were then taken to the French Embassy in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. The men appeared in good health and spirits while waving to the crowd and press from an Embassy balcony. Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet flew to Lebanon the same evening on a chartered Estonian Air flight, accompanied by doctors and Security Police Officers. The group returned at 3.53 a.m. the next morning with the seven freed men. “This is a truly profound and joyous moment – the freed men have come back home to their families and loved ones,” said Paet in a press release.
The men, all doting long beards, bowed to the photographers and called the day their “new birthday” and “the best day of their lives.” They were met by their loved ones in the VIP area of the Tallinn Lennart Meri Airport and gave a short press conference. The men appeared to be of good health and sound mind.
During the press conference in Tallinn Airport it emerged that, although initially the Estonian media speculated that perhaps the terrorists had been unaware whom they had taken hostage and had been after some other European nationals, the abductors had been fully aware the men were Estonian. Apparently they had been following the group for several days before the abduction and knew who they were dealing with. The terrorists had, however, some doubts that some of the men were Jewish after local media speculation. The hostages managed to convince them that they were not Jewish by pointing to their Estonian names.
During the capture a van had rammed into a few of the cyclists, forcing the group to stop. Several terrorists with guns emerged and a warning shot was fired at the feet of one of the men who had started questioning the abductors. Their bikes had been dumped in a ditch and the men then forced into the van.
According to their accounts the hostages spent their entire captivity in the same room as their eight abductors, who only occasionally left for raids or other activities. According to statements from the hostages, the sheds they had been kept in were not larger than 12 square meters and they slept in these rooms together with their captors. The hostages were moved several times. Although they always had to wear blindfolds for these transitions, they knew that they had been transported back and forth between Lebanon and Syria. They were always moved together between three different locations in these countries.
During the press conference they also claimed that the logistical side was very thought out by the terrorists as neither of the local powers in Syria and Lebanon appeared to be pressurising the abductors at all. The abductors were armed with Kalashnikov rifles, grenades and two bomb-belts.
The men were in total agreement when they said how important it was that the seven of them were together and could support each other through this ordeal.
In an interview on Estonian Television (ETV), Kalev Kaosaar, one of the hostages, described their chances of escape. He said that there were moments when there were only a couple of terrorists in the shed with them, who had also put their Kalashnikovs aside. At that time, an escape might have been possible but the men had deemed it unwise. Even if they had managed to leave the shed, the surrounding areas were relatively lawless and the terrorists could have had contacts in all the nearby villages. With hindsight, the men agreed that it had been a good idea not to run.
Both Paet, and Prime Minister Andrus Ansip have been adamant that Estonia does not negotiate with terrorists. It, however, remains unclear why the hostages were released at this time, who negotiated the release and whether a ransom was paid. Over the course of the four months, three videos were released by the terrorists, two of which were made public and one only sent to the relatives of the hostages. None of these videos, however, mentioned the details of any ransom demand. Although a group called Haraket Al-Nahda Wal-Islah, or Movement for Renewal and Reform, had claimed responsibility, they never went public with their demands.
Immediately after the release of the hostages, the Lebanese media claimed a 10 million euro ransom had been paid to the terrorists. In an interview to ETV, Paet was asked about the ransom. He commented that operations this long and geographically so far away always incur big costs, especially as officials had been working on the case both in the Middle East and Estonia for the entire duration of the crisis. He remained tight-lipped about a ransom, though.
A far more political explanation was offered by Juri Kaosaar, the father of Kaosaar. In an interview to ERR Uudised, Kaosaar described how the appointment of a new Lebanese government the week before might have played a big part, and that no ransom had been paid. He believed that the new government played an instrumental role in the release of the hostages as it was hoping to gain political points during its early term in the face of upheavals throughout the Arab world. According to this line of thinking, a ransom was not paid and the crisis was solved thanks to the improvement of the political situation in Lebanon.