Lebanon News

Dutch diplomats abducted, taken to Syria and released

BEIRUT: Two Dutch diplomats were briefly kidnapped by armed men and taken to Syria, the Netherlands said Thursday, in Lebanon’s second case of abducted Westerners in recent months.

Holland’s embassy in Beirut confirmed that the pair had been snatched on May 24 in broad daylight before being driven “against their will” into Syria along a public road north of Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley.

“[They were taken] by local people, who never confirmed their identity and were taken to Syrian authorities in Syria,” Dutch deputy head of mission Hans Peter van der Woude told The Daily Star.

“The Syrian authorities noticed that they were taken across the border in an informal way,” before ordering the pair’s release, he said.

Van der Woude added, however, that the embassy did not believe the incident constituted a kidnapping.

A well-placed security source identified one of the diplomats as Damascus-based defense attaché Commander Paul Flos, without giving details on the second Dutch national. Flos is an army, naval and air force attaché and is accredited at Dutch embassies in Lebanon, Syria and Iran. He has since returned to his mission in Syria.

Van der Woude said the diplomats had been “just visiting” the area where they were accosted and declined to confirm their identities, in line with embassy policy.

Al-Markazia news agency reported that an unlicensed four-wheel drive vehicle had transported the diplomats into Syria across an unofficial border crossing. Their release was ordered after Syrian authorities identified the pair’s nationality, it added.

Western diplomats told The Daily Star Thursday that they were not planning on upgrading security arrangements for embassy staff following the disclosure of the Dutch abduction.

“We still consider Lebanon to be a country that we are advising against travel to as it is dangerous. Our [security] measures [for embassy staff] are extremely stringent,” a diplomat said.

A British Embassy spokesperson said the United Kingdom was unlikely to alter its travel advice on Lebanon following the kidnapping, although the Foreign Office did enhance its warning to citizens in the wake of the abduction earlier this year of seven Estonian cyclists, who are still missing.

“We haven’t changed our security advice in relation to recent events. We did update our travel advice when the Estonians were kidnapped and continue to advise all British citizens to stay on the main roads in the Bekaa,” the spokesperson said.

The Estonians, who had been on a cycle tour of Lebanon and Syria, were taken by armed men on the outskirts of Zahle on Mar. 23. The men have yet to be released despite successive pleas from diplomatic missions in Lebanon and world governments. Two videos of the tourists have been uploaded on YouTube, the second of which featured one individual warning that the men were in “great danger.”

More than 10 people have so far been arrested by security forces in connection to the abduction.

France said Thursday it was committed to helping Lebanese authorities free the seven men.

“France, as the country that knows Lebanon better than any other country in Europe, has assisted and is assisting Estonia with all the means we have in the Lebanon kidnapping case,” Minister Laurent Wauquiez told reporters during a visit to Tallinn. “It might take time until it ends, but we [will] do our best to help to free Estonians.

“We work widely on [the] Estonian kidnapping case, not only in Lebanon but also with Syria where France has good contacts,” he added.

Security forces admit that it is unclear as to whether the hostages are being held in Lebanon or Syria, given the porous and unmarked border separating the two countries.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 17, 2011, on page 1.




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