2011 Estonian cyclists abduction
Lebanon (shown in red)
|Date||March 23, 2011– July 14, 2011|
|Location||Zahlé District, Lebanon|
|Participants||Harakat al-Nahda wal-Islah ("The Movement for Renewal and Reform")|
The 2011 Estonian cyclists abduction was a kidnapping case involving seven Estonian cyclists who were abducted shortly after crossing into Lebanon from Syria on 23 March 2011. Their abductors are believed to have been a gang of Lebanese and Syrian nationals headed by fugitive Darwish Khanjar, who transferred the cyclists to a second gang, Harakat al-Nahda wal-Islah ("The Movement for Renewal and Reform"), led by Wael Abbas.
All seven cyclists were released in Lebanon on 14 July 2011, after 113 days in captivity. They were flown back to Estonia early the following morning. Wael Abbas was arrested by Syrian security forces in November.
On 2 February 2013, the Lebanese army was the victim of an armed ambush in the northeastern town of Arsal, during which three officers were killed as it was seeking to arrest Khaled Homayed, who is believed to have been behind the kidnapping. Homayed has been active in the Free Syrian Army since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War.
On Tuesday, 15 March 2011, a group of seven Estonian cyclists landed in Beirut, Lebanon, whence they cycled north into Syria. Six days later, on Wednesday, 23 March 2011, they crossed back into Lebanon via the Masnaa Border Crossing. Shortly thereafter they were abducted by armed men near the city of Zahlé, east of Beirut. The kidnappers were reported to be masked and to be driving two white vans and a black Mercedes with the license plates removed.
One of the cyclists, Martin Metspalu, is a dentist; another, Andre Pukk, a cycling enthusiast; and a third, Jaan Jagomägi, a software engineer with Estonian geopositioning software company Regio. The remaining four were identified by Estonian officials as Madis Paluoja, August Tillo, Priit Raistik, and Kalev Käosaar.
Diplomacy and search efforts
Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Urmas Paet established an Intra-Institutional Crisis Committee on 23 March in order to coordinate Estonia's activities in relation to the incident and provide regular updates to President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. On 24 March the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs convened a press conference where it was publicly confirmed that seven Estonian citizens who had been cycling in Syria were kidnapped the previous afternoon after having crossed into Lebanon. Foreign Affairs Minister Paet told reporters that Estonia would be dispatching a special diplomat to work with local authorities in Lebanon.
Lebanese security forces focused their search efforts on the Beqaa Valley region, an area known for its lawlessness and rivalries between clans over control of hashish production and trade. Some media were quick to suggest that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) was behind the kidnapping, owing to its dominant influence in the area. One Lebanese newspaper speculated that the kidnapping may have been related to Israel's abduction of Palestinian engineer Dirar Abu Seesi in Ukraine a few weeks earlier. The Daily Star, quoting an unnamed source, reported that Lebanese security officials were considering the possibility that the cyclists may have been smuggled back into Syria. A second source quoted by the newspaper proposed that a pro-Syrian group such as Fatah al-Intifada or an organization loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi may have been behind the abduction. The PFLP-GC and Fatah al-Intifada both denied any involvement in the incident.
Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet arrived in Lebanon early Monday, 28 March, for face-to-face deliberations with Lebanese authorities. After meeting with senior Lebanese officials, including President Michel Suleiman and Lebanese Armed Forces chief General Jean Kahwaji, Paet said it was still not possible to determine who the cyclists' abductors were. The Lebanese daily Ya Libnan reported that security sources posited a connection between the kidnapping and the bombing of a Syriac Orthodox church in Zahle on 27 March.
Arrests, raids and ransom demand
On 29 March, Lebanese security forces, acting on information obtained from arrests made earlier in the week in connection with the abduction, were led to identify the Estonians' captors as a gang of Lebanese and Syrian nationals led by fugitive Darwish Khanjar, known to be involved in smuggling and other criminal activities. Shortly after midnight, Lebanon's Internal Security Forces engaged the captors at several locations in the vicinity of Majdal Anjar. One member of the Security Forces sustained injuries in a gun battle with the kidnappers and was transported to a hospital in Beirut.
|"Copies posted on a local website [show] the IDs of three of the Estonians"—The Daily Star, 20 May 2011.|
Late in the day on 30 March, an obscure group calling itself Harakat al Nahda wal-Islah (The Movement for Renewal and Reform), led by Wael Abbas, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. The group attached copies of three of the Estonian cyclists' ID cards to an email sent to lebanonfiles.com, adding that the Estonians were in good condition and that it would state its demands at a later time. Overnight between 30 and 31 March, Lebanese security forces estimated they were but hours away from resolving the crisis and were optimistic its ending would be a happy one. A source was quoted as saying the kidnappers had been hired by foreign parties. On 6 April lebanonfiles.com indicated that it had received a follow-up email from Harakat al-Nahda overnight demanding a ransom of an unspecified sum. Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip unequivocally rejected the ransom demand. "States do not negotiate with terrorists," he said. "In our hearts, we would all do our part, but if we started to organize a [rescue] fund, then all Estonians traveling in dangerous areas would have a price tag attached to them."
Chief of the Internal Security Forces Major General Ashraf Rifi told Lebanese daily as-Safir that two groups were involved in the incident – one that abducted the Estonian cyclists and another that "cooperated in transferring the hostages to another place." Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces party, accused Syria of being behind the abduction and said it is likely the Estonians were being held in Syria.
Formal charges were brought against eleven people by Lebanese military prosecutor Saqr Saqr on 8 April, for involvement in the kidnapping and for firing on Lebanese security forces.
|"Kidnapped Estonians plead for help again in a new video"—The Daily Star, 20 May 2011. (Shockwave Flash format)|
On 19 April, a video was posted on YouTube by a user named "thekidnaper2011" (sic) in which the seven abducted cyclists were shown asking for help. The Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was subsequently able to confirm that the video had been uploaded from Damascus. Intelligence expert Fred Burton of Stratfor analyzed the video as "a good sign from a counterterrorism perspective" but also commented that the hostages' body language suggested the video had been shot "under duress, probably at gunpoint." A second video appeared on the internet a month later, again showing the seven Estonian cyclists appealing for help from various countries. A spokeswoman for Estonia's foreign ministry revealed to AFP that a third video of the captive cyclists had been received in mid-June and was subsequently circulated among the cyclists' relatives. Unlike the first two, in the third video the cyclists were shown to have been separated into three smaller groups.
|Estonian cyclists wave to journalists from the balcony of the French Embassy in Beirut—The Daily Star|
|Freed Estonian cyclists return home—Xinhua News|
|Estonian cyclists reunited with their loved ones—Xinhua News|
On 14 July 2011, the seven cyclists were set free by their captors and taken by French delegates to the French Embassy in Beirut. According to Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, they were "in good health, but rather underweight." Estonia's foreign minister arrived in Beirut later in the day and escorted the cyclists back to Estonia. A source close to Minister Charbel insisted that no ransom was paid in securing the cyclists' release.
The Baltic News Service reported that the Estonian cyclists had been held in Syria for part of the time. The cyclists described their abductors as eight Islamic extremists armed with Kalashnikovs, who at one point demanded to know if the Estonians were Jewish or from Denmark and had pressured them to convert to Islam.
In September 2011 two accomplices of Wael Abbas, the man believed to be the mastermind behind the abduction, were killed by Lebanon's Internal Security Forces near al-Bireh in southwestern Lebanon. Abbas himself was apprehended by Syrian security forces in November.
In April 2012 a Lebanese military court indicted 29 suspects, including a Syrian national, in connection with the abduction. 26 of the 29 were accused of kidnapping the cyclists, establishing ties with Fatah al-Islam, firing at police, killing a member of the Internal Security Forces, bombing stores that sell liquor, vandalizing Christian monuments, and other crimes. The judge requested a death sentence for the 26. At the time, only nine of the suspects were in custody. In May Syria agreed to extradite to Lebanon several individuals it was holding for suspected involvement in the kidnapping.
- Blanford, Nicholas (4 April 2011). "Kidnapped Bikers: Is Lebanon Being Sucked Into Regional Unrest?". TIME. Archived from the original on 30 April 2011. Retrieved 6 April 2011.
A previously unknown group called Harakat al-Nahda wal-Islah (the Movement for Renewal and Reform) last week belatedly claimed responsibility for the March 23 kidnapping and sent copies of ID cards for three of the Estonians to a Lebanese internet news site.
- "Lebanese authorities continue search for kidnapped Estonians". Europe Online Magazine. 24 March 2011. Retrieved 28 March 2011.
According to witnesses, individuals in two white vans and a dark Mercedes 300 with no license plates forced the Estonians, who were cycling, into the vehicles, a few hours after they entered Lebanon from Syria via the Masnaa border crossing.
- "Seven Estonians kidnapped in Lebanon: security official". Yahoo! News. AFP. 23 March 2011. Retrieved 26 March 2011.
He said the Estonians had crossed into Lebanon earlier from Syria and were intercepted at about 5:30 pm (1530 GMT) by two white vans and a dark Mercedes 300 with no licence plates in the industrial part of Zahle.
- "Estonian tourists kidnapped in Lebanon". Al Jazeera. 23 March 2011. Retrieved 26 March 2011.
Security sources said masked gunmen in a black Mercedes and two white vans with no licence plates kidnapped the foreigners on a road between Zahle, a mostly Christian town, and Kfar Zabed, a mixed Sunni-Christian town.
- Risto Berendson (25 March 2011). "Liibanonis röövitud seltskonda ühendas sport" [Sport united the company abducted in Lebanon] (in Estonian). Postimees.
Mitmest kutsutust saadi nõusse Tartus hambaarstina töötav Martin Metspalu (1977) ja sportliku eluviisiga ettevõtja Andre Pukk (1977).
- Galey, Patrick (25 March 2011). "No word yet on fate of 7 abducted Estonians, search effort continues". The Daily Star. Retrieved 26 March 2011.
The website of Estonia’s national broadcaster identified three of the missing individuals as university lecturer Martin Metspalu, cycling enthusiast Andre Pukk and software engineer Jaan Jagomagi.
- "Estonia says working to free Lebanon abductees". iloubnan.info. AFP. 24 March 2011. Retrieved 27 March 2011.
A third was identified as Jaan Jagomagi by his employer, Estonian geopositioning software company Regio.
- "No leads on kidnapped Estonians in Lebanon: army". Yahoo! News. AFP. 25 March 2011. Retrieved 27 March 2011.
Officials have identified the kidnapped, all in their 30s and early 40s, as Madis Paluoja, August Tillo, Priit Raistik, Jaan Jagomagi, Kalev Kaosaar, Andre Pukk, Martin Metspalu.
- "President Ilves: Estonia with its allies will do everything within our power to find and free the Estonian citizens who were kidnapped in Lebanon and bring them back home". president.ee. Office of the President, Public Relations Department. 30 March 2011. Retrieved 30 March 2011.
Mr. Urmas Paet, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, established an Intra-Institutional Crisis Committee on the 23rd of March after seven Estonian citizens were kidnapped in Lebanon. The Head of State has been informed of the activities of the Crisis Committee on an on-going basis.
- "Estonian cyclists kidnapped in Lebanon". eesti.ca. Eesti Elu. 24 March 2011. Retrieved 26 March 2011.
The Foreign Ministry is sending one of its diplomats to Lebanon today, who will serve as our contact person there. Last night my colleagues and I spoke to representatives of various public authorities in Lebanon in order to exchange information and establish effective communication in order to deal with this matter. We are also communicating and co-operating with representatives from member states of the European Union and NATO.
- "Lebanon: Estonian tourists kidnapped in Bekaa Valley". BBC News. 23 March 2011. Archived from the original on 25 March 2011. Retrieved 30 March 2011.
The Bekaa Valley is known for lawlessness, drug trafficking and feuds between the powerful clans which control the region's hashish plantations.
- "No New Information on Abducted Estonians, PFLP-GC Denies Involvement in Kidnapping". Naharnet. 26 March 2011. Retrieved 26 March 2011.
Media reports have raised suspicions that Palestinian groups, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) in particular, may be behind the abduction because it took place in an area under its control.
- "Lebanese authorities continue search for missing Estonians". Monsters and Critics. 26 March 2011. Retrieved 26 March 2011.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese daily Al Liwa speculated that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian-General Command (PFLP-GC) may have been behind the kidnapping. The group - which has ties to Hamas and Hezbollah - denied any involvement.
- Galey, Patrick (28 March 2011). "No early end in sight for case of abducted Estonians". The Daily Star. Retrieved 27 March 2011.
'The only logical explanation is that this has political motives. It is well-known that there are pro-Libyan factions in the area in which the crime was carried out and Gadhafi has already threatened to target European military and civilian targets in the region.'
- Haljasmets, Karl (30 March 2011). "Estonian kidnapping remains unanswered question". The Baltic Times. Retrieved 30 March 2011.
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.
- "Woman Linked to Abductees Disappears as Estonian FM Visits Beirut". Naharnet. 28 March 2011. Retrieved 28 March 2011.
The newspaper report came as Estonia's Foreign Minister, Urmas Paet, arrived in Beirut Monday for talks with the country's top officials, including Caretaker Interior Minister Ziad Baroud on the mysterious kidnapping.
- "Army conducts raids in Zahle as Estonian minister visits Beirut". The Daily Star. 29 March 2011. Retrieved 30 March 2011.
Later Monday, Paet met with Lebanese Army Chief Jean Kahwaji.
- "Estonia’s FM: Lebanon doing utmost to find the 7 kidnapped tourists". Ya Libnan. 28 March 2011. Retrieved 28 March 2011.
Paet who met with President Michel Suleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri, Premier-designate Najib Miqati and Caretaker Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, said it's impossible 'at this stage' to say who was behind the kidnapping, but the Lebanese officials informed him that they were making every effort to find the Estonian tourists.
- "No one hurt in Lebanon church blast". Press TV. MYA/HGH/MMN. 27 March 2011. Retrieved 28 March 2011.
A bomb explosion has ripped through a Syriac Orthodox church in eastern Lebanese city of Zahle, causing heavy damage but no casualties.
- "Raid to arrest abductors of Estonians in Lebanon". Yahoo! News (Beirut). AFP. 29 March 2011. Retrieved 29 March 2011.
'Those behind the kidnappings are Lebanese and Syrian nationals and an operation to arrest them is ongoing,' said the security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
- "Raid to arrest abductors of Estonians in Lebanon". Zawya.com. AFP. 29 March 2011. Retrieved 29 March 2011.
The abductors of seven Estonians kidnapped a week ago at gunpoint in Lebanon have been identified and a raid is underway to arrest them, a top security official told AFP Tuesday.
- "ISF arrest suspect in abduction of Estonians in West Bekaa". iloubnan.info (Beirut). 29 March 2011. Retrieved 29 March 2011.
The Internal Security Forces (ISF) intelligence bureau carried out raids in the Bekaa on Tuesday against suspected abductors of the seven Estonians in Lebanon.
- "Clash breaks out as Lebanon security search for kidnapped tourists". Haaretz. 29 March 2011. Retrieved 29 March 2011.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said: 'At least one of the Lebanese security forces was injured and the chase of the suspects is continuing in the area of Jib Jennin.'
- "Army Identifies Estonians' Abductors as Intelligence Bureau Member is Injured in Bekaa Raids". Naharnet. AFP. 29 March 2011. Retrieved 29 March 2011.
He said the raid, which began overnight, was taking place in the towns of Jeb Jennine, Majdal Balhis, Majdal Anjar, and al-Sweiry on the Bekaa region. One member of intelligence bureau was wounded when security troops stormed the area, he said.
- "Kidnapped Estonians plead for help in new video". Daily Star (Tallinn). AFP. 20 May 2011. Retrieved 20 May 2011.
Seven Estonian tourists kidnapped in Lebanon two months ago pleaded for help in a video released Friday, criticising their government for abandoning them and saying they were in 'great danger'.
- "Obscure group claims kidnap of Estonians in Lebanon". The West Australian (Beirut). AFP. 31 March 2011. Retrieved 31 March 2011.
The group, Haraket El Nahda Wal Islah (the movement for renewal and reform) said it would make known its demands at a later time.
- "Rifi Says Ringleader is Wael Abbas as ISF Makes More Arrests in Kidnapping Case". Naharnet (Beirut). 31 March 2011. Retrieved 2 April 2011.
The father and brother of Wael Abbas, the alleged leader of the group that kidnapped seven Estonian tourists in the Bekaa Valley last week, are in the custody of the Internal Security Forces, ISF chief Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi said. Earlier, the media had identified the ringleader as Darwish Khanjar.
- Patrick Galey; Youssef Diab (31 March 2011). "Investigators expect arrest of kidnappers soon". The Daily Star (Beirut). Retrieved 30 March 2011.
'Security personnel will require a number of additional hours to put an end to this tragic incident, which has been going on for a week and which will have a happy ending for both the hostages and for Lebanon,' the source told The Daily Star. 'Things are coming to a close.' The source added that the brunt of Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces efforts were focused on apprehending the two principal suspects, who had been paid to kidnap the Estonians on the behest of 'foreign parties.'
- "Ransom demand for Estonians kidnapped in Lebanon". Yahoo! News (Beirut). AFP. 6 April 2011. Retrieved 7 April 2011.
The group, Haraket Al-Nahda Wal-Islah (Movement for Renewal and Reform), said the Estonians were in good condition and that it wanted a ransom, without specifying a sum.
- Tammik, Ott (7 April 2011). "PM Rules Out Bargaining with Terrorists". Eesti Rahvusringhääling. Retrieved 7 April 2011.
Prime Minister Andrus Ansip backed the Foreign Minister's stance that paying ransom for the Estonian abductees in Lebanon is out of the question because the incentive would endanger other Europeans traveling in risky areas.
- "Syria Reportedly Offers Help, Rifi Says No Evidence that Estonians Crossed the Border". Naharnet. 2 April 2011. Retrieved 3 April 2011.
He unveiled to al-Liwaa daily 'there are two groups, the first participated with the ringleader in the abduction…the second cooperated in transferring the hostages to another place.'
- Ladki, Nadim (6 April 2011). "Geagea: Syria most likely behind abduction of Estonians". Daily Star (Beirut). Retrieved 6 April 2011.
Lebanese Forces (LF) leader Samir Geagea said Monday that Syria was most likely behind last month's kidnapping of seven Estonians in Lebanon, adding that an explosion outside a church in Zahle 10 days ago was linked to the abduction and meant to be a diversion.
- Mroue, Bassem (8 April 2011). "Lebanese prosecutor indicts 11 for role in kidnapping Estonian tourists". Yahoo! News (Beirut). AP, Canadian Press. Retrieved 8 April 2011.
Lebanese judicial officials say a military prosecutor has indicted 11 people suspected of involvement in last month's kidnapping of seven Estonian tourists.
- "Estonia Confirms Men Begging for Help in YouTube Video are Kidnap Victims". Naharnet (Beirut). 20 April 2011. Retrieved 20 May 2011.
Estonia's foreign ministry confirmed Wednesday that seven men seen begging for help in a video posted on YouTube were the tourists from the Baltic state abducted last month in Lebanon.
- Teesalu, Ingrid (13 May 2011). "Youtube Cyclist Video Was Uploaded From Damascus". ERR. Retrieved 20 May 2011.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has confirmed that the video of seven kidnapped Estonian cyclists posted on Youtube was uploaded from Damascus, Syria.
- Fred Burton (21 April 2011). Dispatch: Deciphering the Estonian Cyclist Hostage Video. Stratfor. Retrieved 20 May 2011.
- Ummelas, Ott (20 May 2011). "Estonians Kidnapped in Lebanon Appeal for Help in Video Message". Bloomberg. Retrieved 20 May 2011.
Estonian citizens kidnapped in Lebanon in March appealed for help in a video message received by the country’s Foreign Ministry yesterday.
- "Relatives got video of kidnapped Estonians: ministry". Daily Star (Lebanon) (Tallinn). Agence France-Presse. 9 July 2011. Retrieved 14 July 2011.
A video of seven Estonians kidnapped in Lebanon in March has been sent to their relatives, after two earlier videos were posted on the Internet, the Baltic nation’s Foreign Ministry said Friday.
- Anderson, Brooke (15 July 2011). "Parents of abducted Estonians elated after 4-month ordeal". The Daily Star (Beirut). Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 15 July 2011.
The third was released exclusively to the families of the abducted men in mid-June.
- Dakroub, Hussein (15 July 2011). "Estonians set free but hunt for captors persists". The Daily Star (Beirut). Archived from the original on 15 July 2011. Retrieved 15 July 2011.
Following their release in what Estonia’s foreign minister called 'a long international operation,' the seven Estonians, looking well, appeared on the balcony of the French Embassy in Beirut, where they smiled and waved at journalists gathered outside.
- Yang, Fang (15 July 2011). "Seven Estonian tourists kidnapped in Beirut back home". Xinhua News Agency (Tallinn). News.cn. Retrieved 16 July 2011.
The Estonians, who were released after being kidnapped in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley in March, arrive at the airport in Tallinn early on July 15, 2011.
- Bakri, Nada (14 July 2011). "7 Estonian Hostages Set Free in Lebanon". The New York Times (Beirut). Archived from the original on 15 July 2011. Retrieved 15 July 2011.
Seven Estonians who were kidnapped nearly four months ago while cycling in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley were released Thursday, Lebanese officials said.
- Sarhan, Jessica (14 July 2011). "Estonian Tourists Freed After Hostage Ordeal". Sky News (Beirut). Retrieved 15 July 2011.
Though the details of the conditions in which the hostages were living have yet to be released, the Lebanese interior minister, Marwan Charbel, stated that the men were 'in good health, however rather underweight'.
- "Kidnapped Estonians held in Lebanon, Syria report". Ya Libnan. 16 July 2011. Retrieved 17 July 2011.
The kidnappers were Islamic extremists, the released Estonians said and had urged them to convert to Islam.
- Seputyte, Milda (15 July 2011). "Estonians Kidnapped in Lebanon Were Also Kept in Syria, BNS Says". Bloomberg News. Retrieved 15 July 2011.
The seven Estonians kidnapped in Lebanon in March were held in three different locations in Lebanon and Syria, the former captives said on their return to Estonia, according to the Baltic News Service.
- "Estonians back home after Lebanon kidnap ordeal". The West Australian (Tallinn). AFP. 15 July 2011. Retrieved 16 July 2011.
But Kaosaar noted there were 'tense moments' during their captivity, notably when their captors asked if they were Jews -- or from Denmark, homeland of a cartoonist who sparked Muslim ire in 2005 for a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed.
- Rikken, Kristopher (26 April 2012). "Death Sentences for Militants Linked to 2011 Estonian Hostage Drama". Eesti Rahvusringhääling. Retrieved 26 May 2012.
- "29 indicted in Estonians' kidnapping case". The Daily Star. 26 April 2012. Retrieved 26 May 2012.
- "Syria to hand Lebanon suspects in Estonian kidnapping: security chief". The Daily Star. 17 May 2012. Retrieved 26 May 2012.
- Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- 31.03.2011, Estonian Foreign Ministry announcement No. 106-E, four of seven criminals are in custody
- petition in favor af the seven abducted Estonian cyclists - Dutch version
- petition in favor af the seven abducted Estonian cyclists - English version
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- Video: Röövitud jalgratturite video tekitab lähedastes ahastust. Eesti Ekspress, 21. April 2011
- 14.07.2011 Liibanonis röövitud eestlased on vabastatud (AK video)