2 Lebanese-Australian children freed after Beirut abduction

AP News
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Posted: Apr 07, 2016 3:12 PM
2 Lebanese-Australian children freed after Beirut abduction

BEIRUT (AP) — Ibtissam Berri was taking her two Australian-Lebanese grandchildren to school when she saw a car parked on the street and a cameraman filming them. Once they came closer, two men jumped out, pushed her and a domestic worker away and whisked the boy and girl off in the car.

That was the beginning of a two-day drama that ended Thursday with Lebanese police saying the children were freed and reunited with their Lebanese father while their Australian mother was detained. In addition to the mother, four Australians, including a TV crew, and two Britons were also detained over the same incident.

The mother, Sally Faulkner, came to Lebanon recently to try to regain custody of her children — 3 1/2 -year-old Noah and 5 ½-year-old Lahela — nearly two years after separating from her ex-husband Ali al-Amin.

The Wednesday morning abduction in the southern suburb of Hadath occurred just before the rush hour — minutes later, when the Beirut city traffic comes to a near standstill, it would have been almost impossible to carry off.

Within hours, Lebanese authorities detained five Australians, including a prominent TV presenter and her crew, as well as the children's mother, two British citizens and two Lebanese on suspicion they were involved in the abduction, police said in a statement.

At least one of the Britons is being held on suspicion he planned to smuggle the children out of Lebanon on his boat, docked at a private Beirut hotel, police officials said.

"They were faster than lighting," Berri, the grandmother, told The Associated Press on Thursday, speaking of the men who took the kids. "One hit me on the head with a pistol butt, knocking me down on the road."

"I held the boy and started screaming 'They are kidnapping the children.' No one helped me," she said, adding the assailants did not look Lebanese. "I was terrified."

The abductors made sure her son was not with them, Berri speculated, speaking at her Beirut apartment. Behind her, a photo of Lahela as a baby stood at the dining table. Earlier, her son had gone to a club he owns near Beirut but four people who had called and made an appointment for a wind-surfing lesson never showed up, she said.

Berri said she is a cousin of Lebanon's powerful Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and the family name is well known.

The children had lived between Lebanon and Australia until mid-2014, when the mother left the Arab country.

Berri also said the family has been receiving threatening email and Facebook messages for some time and reported it to the authorities. The school was told only the father and the grandmother could pick up the children.

There were no details how the kids were found — or what the role of the Australian ex-wife and the TV crew was — but once police handed them back to their father on Thursday, Berri said he took them to a doctor after the shock they had suffered.

Al-Amin told the leading local LBC TV station that he does not plan to sue his former wife. "She is the mother of my children ... if I were her I would have done the same."

In a television interview last year, Faulkner said she was sure her children wanted to be home with her and that her daughter "tells me she's lonely because her grandma speaks Arabic, she hasn't learnt it. He (al-Amin) didn't teach them."

The police officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, did not give the names of the other detainees but the Australians include journalists working for Channel Nine's 60 Minutes who were filming an episode on the case of the two children in Lebanon. Among those detained is TV presenter Tara Brown.

60 Minutes reporter Michael Usher told Nine News in an interview broadcast Thursday that Australian consular officials in Beirut were in contact with the 60 Minutes crew. He said the detained journalists are very experienced.

They were prepared for the difficulties of covering what Usher described as a "risky operation, a risky story — this desperate Australian mum trying to get her two Australian children home."

A Beirut police official said that during questioning, the journalists said they came on a humanitarian mission and that their aim was not to kidnap the children.

In a statement issued by Channel Nine earlier Thursday, it said it "can confirm a crew from 60 Minutes has been detained in Beirut. We won't be giving out any more details, other than to say we are working with authorities to get them released and back home ASAP."

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said her ministry has been in contact with Channel Nine. A statement from Bishop said Australian authorities are "urgently seeking to confirm the crew's whereabouts and welfare, and have offered all appropriate consular assistance."

In Beirut, Australian ambassador to Lebanon, Glenn Miles met with Lebanese police chief Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Basbous on Thursday, state-run National News Agency said, without giving details.

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Associated Press Writer Kristen Gelineau contributed to this report from Sydney.