Seven Estonian bicyclists kidnapped in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley nearly four months ago have been released. The men appeared in good spirits Thursday as they waved to reporters and by-standers from the balcony of the French Embassy, where they were taken after being freed.
No force was reportedly used to free the seven cyclists earlier in the day. They were released to a delegation from the French Embassy, as Estonia does not have a diplomatic mission in Lebanon.
They were then moved to the French Embassy in Beirut, where they made an appearance on a balcony to wave to the press. All had grown beards and were sporting t-shirts and short pants.
American University in Beirut political science professor Hilal Khashan says the timing of the Estonians' release may be connected to this week's diplomatic fallout involving French and U.S. interests in neighboring Syria.
“The timing of the release is quite interesting, because it happened right after protesters in Damascus attacked the French and American embassies, and right after President Barack Obama came [down] hard on President [Bashar] Assad and said he should not think he is indispensable. Now, the Syrians are saying, 'okay, look we can help. We have credentials, we have assets and you can work with us,'” Khashan said.
Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said nine individuals, including Lebanese citizens, had been arrested in connection with the March 23rd kidnapping in the Bekaa Valley town of Zahlé.
The former hostages gave testimony about their ordeal to a military investigative judge Thursday afternoon. The Estonian foreign minister is due in Beirut late Thursday to accompany them home.
The cyclists were abducted after crossing into Lebanon from Syria. A previously unknown Islamic fundamentalist group - the Movement for Renewal and Reform - claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
During Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, dozens of foreigners were kidnapped.