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Parents of abducted Estonians elated after 4-month ordeal

BEIRUT: He had a good feeling that his son was going to be released soon. And Thursday morning, Andres, Martin Metspalu father got the phone call he’d been awaiting for four months: his son was free.

The seven Estonian men abducted four months ago in east Lebanon, and held incommunicado, were released in the Bekaa Valley Thursday morning and were scheduled for a return home overnight Friday.

“It feels great. I have to think about what I’m going to tell him. We missed him very much.” Anders Metspalu, a genetics professor at the University of Tartu in eastern Estonia, told The Daily Star, the day his son and six comrades were released.

“Every day I wondered: What’s he doing? I had no idea what the conditions were like. I was worried that anything could happen.”

The men, Kalev Kaosaar, August Tillo, Madis Paluoja, Priit Raistik, Jaan Jagomagi, Andre Pukk and Martin Metspalu, all in their 30s, who arrived in Damascus on March 15, crossed overland into Lebanon by bicycle on March 23, where they were abducted by masked men at gunpoint and put into unlicensed vehicles in Zahle, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

Nearly a month later, a video of the men was released by a previously unknown group calling themselves Harakat al-Nahda Wal-Islah (the Movement for Renewal and Reform). They claimed responsibility for the abduction, yet never made specific demands in the videos. They would release a total of three videos during the four months that the men were held captive.

The first video of the kidnapped seven was added to YouTube on April 19, with the tourists pleading for their lives, appealing for help from France, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It was subsequently removed by YouTube. The Estonian Foreign Ministry said it had determined the video had been uploaded from Damascus. The second was obtained by the Estonian Foreign Ministry on May 19. The third was released exclusively to the families of the abducted men in mid-June.

“The most recent video was horrible,” said Metspalu. “They were separated into three different groups of two, two and three.” (In the previous hostage videos, the men were all in one group.)

At that point, the Estonian professor was wondering how much longer this would continue.

“When they were first kidnapped, I thought it would be over in 10 days. But then two weeks went by, and then it was two months. After three months, I started thinking about people who’d been held for five or six years.”

During the entire period, Metspalu says that every day was a struggle.

“Of course, I tried to go on as usual, but I couldn’t. I got behind in my work because I couldn’t concentrate,” Metspalu said.

While grappling with daily uncertainty, he was heartened by the hundreds of emails and phone calls of concern he received from around the world. He was also reassured by regular updates from the Lebanese and Estonian governments that the men would likely be released unharmed due to the lack of political motives in the abduction.

“I was sure things wouldn’t end badly, because there was no point in keeping them,” he said.

Indeed, he was correct.

The seven men appeared Thursday morning on one of the balconies of the French Embassy in Beirut, which had provided diplomatic assistance throughout the ordeal. The men, wearing white shorts and T-shirts and sporting beards, looked relieved to have come out of their ordeal.

The men were kidnapped at gunpoint by masked men shortly after entering Lebanon through the Syrian border. The abduction, which was shrouded in mystery, revived memories of the spate of kidnappings that took place during the country’s 1975-90 Civil War.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 15, 2011, on page 2.
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