Kidnapped Bikers: Is Lebanon Being Sucked Into Regional Unrest?

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Khaled Sami / Reuters

Lebanese policemen carry bikes belonging to kidnapped Estonian bikers in Zahleh, eastern Bekaa valley March 23, 2011.

The recent abduction of seven Estonian tourists on a cycling holiday has revived memories of darker times and stirred fears that the unrest sweeping the Arab world may be spilling into Lebanon. Neighboring Syria is experiencing its most serious bout of internal unrest in decades, spurring a violent crackdown by the authorities who blame the anti-regime protests on "foreign conspirators." The abduction of the Estonian tourists has left many Lebanese gloomily predicting that Lebanon cannot avoid being sucked into the vortex of its influential neighbor's domestic crisis.

A previously unknown group called Harakat al-Nahda wal-Islah (the Movement for Renewal and Reform) last week belatedly claimed responsibility for the March 23 kidnapping and sent copies of ID cards for three of the Estonians to a Lebanese internet news site. But despite an intensive manhunt mounted by the Lebanese security forces, no ransom demands have been made and the whereabouts and fate of the Estonians remains unknown.

In the strife-torn 1980s, Lebanon was synonymous with kidnappings when over 100 foreigners were abducted. Some were held for several years. But since the end of the 16-year civil war in 1990, Lebanon has worked hard to shed its one-time image as a Hobbesian world of sectarian bloodletting, suicide bomb spectaculars and kidnappings. Today, a younger generation of foreign tourists treats Lebanon as an edgy holiday experience, where snow-capped mountains, golden beaches and extravagant nightlife collide with periodic car bombings, armed troops on the streets and the pervasive presence of the militant Shi'ite Hizballah. "The last thing Lebanon needs, after much good press in the world's media, is to be relabeled a bad place," wrote Michael Karam, a Lebanese business columnist, in Abu Dhabi's The National newspaper.

The Estonians flew into Beirut on March 15 and cycled north crossing into Syria three days later. Their exact route in Syria is unclear, but they re-entered Lebanon on the afternoon of March 23 via the Masnaa border crossing which lies on the Beirut-Damascus highway. Soon afterwards, they were intercepted by two white vans and a dark Mercedes on a back road near the Christian town of Zahle in the Bekaa Valley. Armed men bundled them into the vehicles, leaving the bicycles and their bags on the side of the road. Eyewitnesses saw the vehicles head south, skirting several Lebanese army checkpoints and vanishing in the direction of a cluster of Sunni-populated villages. One of the Estonians apparently was able to make a quick call on his mobile phone before it was taken away. Investigators later traced the call to somewhere near the Sunni town of Barr Elias.

With no immediate claim of responsibility, the Lebanese media were full of speculation on the motives and identity of the kidnappers. Could they have been Palestinian renegades? The Damascus-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command mans several small bases in the Bekaa valley, one of them only a few minutes drive from the scene of the abduction. The PFLP-GC was backed at one time by Libya and was an initial suspect in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi expelled the PFLP-GC from Libya at the end of the 1980s. But with his regime reeling from a domestic revolt supported by the firepower of the United States and Europe, could Gaddafi have revived his old connections with PFLP-GC commanders, luring them with hard cash to abduct Europeans?

Ramez Mustafa, PFLP-GC spokesman in Lebanon, swiftly denied his group's involvement in the kidnapping and pledged to assist the Lebanese authorities in determining the whereabouts of the Estonians.

The Lebanese security forces concentrated their search in the Sunni-dominated Western Bekaa, an area where Islamist sentiment runs high and from where a few years ago several volunteers travelled to Iraq to fight coalition troops.

The abduction itself was well-organized and the fact that the bicycles and baggage were left behind suggests it was a political kidnapping not a robbery. Last week, the Lebanese security forces arrested several members of a criminal gang specializing in smuggling goods across the adjacent border with Syria. One of the vans used in the abduction was discovered and the ring leader of the gang was identified as Wael Abbas from the village of Majdal Anjar. With Abbas on the run, his father and a brother were arrested by the authorities.

But from there the trail has run cold.

"It's possible that the Estonians are no longer in Lebanon," a senior security source tells TIME, suggesting that they could have been transported to Syria. Investigators suspect that the Abbas gang was contracted for the snatch only, subsequently transferring the kidnapped Estonians to a second group.

Security officials believe the decision to kidnap the Estonians must have been made while they were still cycling through Syria. Presumably, they were under surveillance from the moment they passed through Syrian and Lebanese customs as they were picked up only 45 minutes after they entered Lebanon. Some speculate that the kidnapping was intended to send a warning to the West of the instability that might follow a collapse of the Syrian regime. The tiny Baltic state of Estonia does not have the same international clout as the U.S. or a larger European country which is why the missing cyclists has received little attention internationally. But the message seems to have been received and understood. Foreign tourists reportedly are leaving or revising plans to visit the Bekaa and embassies in Beirut have issued new travel advisories.

The Syrian authorities have offered to help Lebanon recover the hostages, but the fate of the Estonians is probably dependent now on the goodwill of the kidnappers and their mysterious backers.