Middle East

Seven Estonian hostages freed in Lebanon

Estonian hostages appearing in video shot by their captors
Image caption The Estonian cyclists appeared in three videos, published by their captors

Seven Estonians have been freed in Lebanon, after being kidnapped nearly four months ago.

They were released in the town of Arsal in the eastern Bekaa valley, the Estonian foreign ministry said.

"We have taken the freed compatriots to the French embassy in Beirut. Their health condition is good," said the ministry in a statement.

The group were tourists who were seized by gunmen in Bekaa after entering the country from Syria on a bicycle tour.

"The main thing now is for our seven fellow countrymen to get home to their families and loved ones as quickly as possible," said the Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet.

Mr Paet is expected to fly to Lebanon and escort his freed compatriots on their flight home.

Since Estonia lacks diplomatic representation in Lebanon, the cyclists were taken initially to the French embassy in the capital, Beirut. French diplomats were active in seeking their release.

"Our sole priority right now is to ensure they arrive at the embassy safe and sound, and then we will hear whatever details they have," said the Lebanese Interior Minister, Marwan Charbel.

The Bekaa valley is notorious for its lawlessness.

A previously unknown group called Haraket Al-Nahda Wal-Islah, or Movement for Renewal and Reform, claimed to have carried out the kidnap, and demanded a ransom.

Image caption The touring cyclists had crossed from Syria into the lawless Bekaa valley in eastern Lebanon

The kidnappers released three videos showing the hostages. The videos did not make political demands.

It is not been made public whether a ransom was eventually paid to secure the release of the cyclists.

During their investigations, the Lebanese authorities have arrested a number of suspects, including known Islamists. But most of the detainees have been released for lack of evidence.

Kidnapping of Westerners was once relatively common, but has become much rarer since the end of the civil war in 1990.

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