Once notorious for the kidnappings of Westerners during the dark days of its civil war, Lebanon appeared to have turned that murky chapter in its history, with hardly a report of such a crime in decades.
That was until March 23 when seven Estonian cyclists appeared over the Anti-Lebanon mountains from Syria, sped down the highway into the lush and troubled Bekaa Valley, land of vineyards and crime gangs, and were soon slammed off their bikes by armed men in three cars.
Somewhere outside Zahle, a predominantly Christian city in the Bekaa, the Estonians were bundled into a van, stripped of their mobile phones, and were next to be seen on a YouTube video reportedly posted from Syria. The video has since been removed.
After 113 days in captivity the seven Estonian have now been released by their kidnappers, after efforts by the French, which acts on behalf of Estonians in Lebanon.
Yet still no one is quite sure who took them.
Initial speculation pointed the finger at the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC), a Palestinian militant faction long allied with the Syrian regime, which maintains bases along the anti-Lebanon mountains.
At a press conference on their return to Estonia the men said they believed their kidnappers were Islamic extremists, saying they had been urged to convert to Islam and to verify media reports that four of them were Jews or from Denmark, homeland of a cartoonist who sparked Muslim anger in 2005 for a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed.
However, a security source quoted in Lebanon’s Daily Star said the Estonian men had been kidnapped by a Syrian crime ring operating in Lebanon.
The crime ring, which is called Haraket al-Nahda Wal-Islah (Movement for Renewal and Reform), had reportedly demanded a ransom against the threat of handing over the hostages to a local Al Qaeda cell, citing the Estonian army’s involvement in Afghanistan. However the killing of Osama Bin Laden had foiled that plan, said the source, without giving more details.
The Lebanese authorities have charged 14 individuals with being involved in the abduction, five of whom are still at large.
But the Daily Star source argued that it was the Syrian regime playing puppet master to the whole affair, using its influence to get the cyclists freed in order to try and take some of the international heat off it in the wake of the pro-Assad mob attacks on the American and French embassies.