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Lebanon unaware of negotiations which freed Estonians
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BEIRUT: Lebanese officials were unaware of the French-Syrian agreement that led to the release of the seven kidnapped Estonians after 113 days in captivity, a security source told The Daily Star Sunday.

The Lebanese government was only notified of the release after the seven Estonian cyclists were handed to French intelligence personnel Thursday morning, the source added.

According to the security source, the seven Estonian men were kidnapped by a Syrian crime ring operating in Lebanon, were delivered shortly afterward into Syrian territory and returned to Lebanon Thursday.

“Two cars carrying the seven Estonians arrived at an abandoned road on the outskirts of Taybeh [in the Bekaa] near the town of Britel Thursday where they met two unarmed French Embassy vehicles,” said the security source.

The source also said that the Syrian kidnappers warned French officials against consulting the Lebanese authorities, saying “that any Lebanese security presence would jeopardize the lives of both the Estonians and the French.”

While the Lebanese government has so far failed to explain the reason and the nature of the kidnapping, the seven Estonians, on arriving in Tallinn, Estonia, Friday, told reporters that had been in both Syria and Lebanon during their detention.

Interior Minister Marwan Charbel stressed that the information about the kidnapping is known only by the judiciary. “The Lebanese will eventually know, even after a period of time, the place where the seven Estonians were released,” Charbel told the Voice of Lebanon radio station Friday.

But according to the security source, neither the interior minister nor other Lebanese officials were aware that a deal was made between the French intelligence and Syrian security forces.

“Lebanese officials were notified around 8 a.m. Thursday when the French convoy crossed the Dahr al-Baidar checkpoint of the Lebanese Army,” the source noted.

The source also explained that several factors came together to end the Estonian’s captivity. “Initially in March, the kidnappers were looking for a possible handover of the Estonians to the Al-Qaeda terrorist group, because the Estonian army is taking part in combat in Afghanistan,” the source said.

But the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the rapid developments within Syria changed that plan.

The abductors, believed to be a previously unknown group called Haraket al-Nahda Wal-Islah (Movement for Renewal and Reform), had reportedly demanded a ransom. Several media reports said a Gulf country secured the money for the ransom.

The source added that last week’s attack on U.S. and French embassies in Damascus by demonstrators in support of President Bashar Assad played an indirect role in expeditingthe negotiations which led to the Estonians’ being freed.

“When the U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton slammed the attacks on diplomatic missions, Damascus attempted to calm the international pressure by helping out in the negotiations to release the Estonian cyclists,” the source explained.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 18, 2011, on page 2.
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