7 Estonians abducted in Lebanon released

AP News
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Posted: Jul 14, 2011 8:24 AM
7 Estonians abducted in Lebanon released

Seven Estonian tourists abducted nearly four months ago while cycling through Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley were released in good health early Thursday, officials said.

Sporting beards and wide smiles, the Estonians appeared briefly on the balcony of the French embassy in Beirut.

The men will undergo a medical checkup before returning home Friday morning at the latest.

Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said no force was used to free the hostages and that several countries and their respective intelligence services were involved in the operation.

When asked whether the Estonian government paid a ransom, Paet referred only to the "costs" involved.

"There are always costs involved with such a joint (release) operation," Paet told a news conference in Tallinn, Estonia.

He did not elaborate except to say that "the cost was not minor."

Lebanon's Interior Minister Marwan Charbel denied any ransom was paid and said nine people were under arrest.

A previously unheard-of group called Harakat al-Nahda wal-Islah, or the Movement for Renewal and Reform, had claimed responsibility for the March 23 abduction and demanded an unspecified ransom. But it was not clear whether the kidnappings were politically motivated, like the wave of abductions during Lebanon's civil war.

Charbel, the interior minister, suggested an "organized gang" was behind the abduction.

A Lebanese security official told AP the seven were released in Taybeh village, about one kilometer (mile) south of Baalbek, and that French Embassy officials were on hand to receive them.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

On April 11, a police intelligence officer and a main suspect in the kidnapping were killed in a shootout in the border village of Majdal Anjar, known for sheltering Sunni fundamentalist fugitives, police said at the time.

An online video posted in mid-April showed the seven Estonians asking Lebanese, Saudi, Jordanian and French leaders to help secure their release.

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AP writers Gary Peach in Riga, Latvia and Jari Tanner in Tallinn, Estonia contributed to this report.

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Zeina Karam can be reached on http://twitter.com/zkaram