7 Estonian Tourists Kidnapped in Lebanon
Seven Estonian tourists have been kidnapped in eastern Lebanon during a cycling trip.
The Estonians were forced into two white vans without license plates by men who were armed and masked. Their bicycles were left behind and later found.
"The General Security in Zahle called me and said they found the papers of Estonian people," Estonian consul Sami Kamouh told Reuters. Media reports said that some of the seven cyclists may be Ukrainians while authorities have only confirmed the involvement of Estonians.
A search rescue has been started by the Lebanese army.
The Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not yet learned the identities of the abducted Estonians. "The consular department is investigating who have registered themselves in Lebanon," spokeswoman Minna-Liina Lind told Postimees. "We do no currently have any information about who they are exactly." Lind said that the ministry has cautioned Estonians from visiting Lebanon since January.
"The vehicles headed [...] near where there is a post for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command," a source told AFP.
A representative of the Palestinian movement told local television that the group had nothing to do with the abduction, Al Jazeera reported.
After crossing the Syrian border earlier in the day, the cyclists traveled through Bekaa Valley - a stronghold for criminals and drug traffickers - until they were abducted on a road in an industrial complex between Zahle, a mainly Christian town, and Kfar Zabed, a mixed Sunni-Christian village.
Estonian Journalist Ivar Soopan, who had himself been taken hostage in Lebanon in 2006, believed it likely that the Estonian tourists were captured by Hezbollah fighters.
"The town of Zahle is [...] wholly under the control of Hezbollah. But it should not be seen as a tragic fact that the kidnappers were wearing masks because they tend to move around with masks anyway when armed," Soopan, who has made a dozen trips to Lebanon, told Estonian Public Broadcasting.
"They are brutal and fierce men, but as Shiites they strictly observe the rules of Islam. I believe and I hope that the Estonians will be treated politely and kidnapping has some other purpose then just to seize them," said Soopan, recalling how polite his own captors had been when he was jailed in a Beirut basement.
"The tourists could have stood out with too much photographing or filming, that catches the eye and is generally prohibited by the Hezbollah soldiers in Bekaa."
Between 1984 and 1990, at least 88 foreigners were taken hostage in a wave of abductions in the country's civil war. Nowadays, kidnappings are much more rare. Two Polish tourists were abducted and quickly rescued in August.