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Lebanon 7 Set Foot on Homeland Soil

After their release yesterday, seven Estonians who were kidnapped in Lebanon in March arrived at Tallinn Airport, where they were greeted at 3:53 in the morning of July 15 by the nation's press and reunited with their loved ones.

The men, exhausted but relieved, emerged to cheers, and then gave a press conference, providing the first, often candid details of their 113-day ordeal.

The men revealed that they had spent the close to four months living and eating meals in close quarters with eight kidnappers they characterized as fundamentalist Muslims.

By the end, the kidnappers were "just as tired as we were." One of the Estonians said their captors had promised never to take Estonians hostage again.

No force was used in the operation to free the seven Estonians.

The men said they were held in three different places, in both Lebanon and Syria, and characterized the kidnappers as having a strong logistical network.

The Estonians were together the whole time and that unity proved a major advantage while held captive.

They described the moment they were taken hostage as a well-organized lightning operation. Two of the cyclists, who were riding in single file through the Bekaa valley, were hit by a car, a third was hit by the door of a moving car. They were ordered to lie face-down and one shot or volley from an automatic weapon was fired near the feet of one of the cyclists, August Tillo.

Initially, the men were housed in a tool shed in the mountains with metal shutters and a metal door. They lived and ate meals together with eight kidnappers, who had an equal number of AK rifles, a sackful of grenades and two explosive belts. The men said the captors made an attempt to treat them well, bringing medicine and food.

The men said the situation was unique, with the captors' emotional state very obvious to them most of the time. There were moments when they feared for their lives - "only a fool would not," said one of the former hostages.

An incident the men called "more serious" occurred in the second week, one of the kidnappers entered with a rifle and said the media had reported that "four of the men were Jewish. Who are they?"

But the Estonians managed to convince the kidnappers that they were not based on appearance and names. One of the former hostages ventured that some other nationalities - such as Danes - would not have fared as well.

The Estonians were not forbidden to talk among themselves but tried to remain silent during prayers. "We tried to converse as if we were visiting someone's house, as polite people do."

They received news from time to time, such as listening to a broadcast of Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Paet on the radio.

When the moment of their release came, they were told to get in a car and driven to an isolated place in Lebanon at 4:00 in the morning. They were given a telephone with an Estonian number and told to call it when the sun came up.

As to lessons learned from the ordeal, the men waxed broad-minded, saying people should not be judged on the basis of their religion. "No religion is bad," said one. 


Kristopher Rikken

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