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Estonia won't quit search for abducted nationals.

Summary: Estonia is preparing for a long-term operation to free seven nationals kidnapped five weeks ago in Lebanon, as Tallinn's foreign minister admitted Thursday the men could be detained for several months.

BEIRUT: Estonia is preparing for a long-term operation to free seven nationals kidnapped five weeks ago in Lebanon, as Tallinn's foreign minister admitted Thursday the men could be detained for several months.

Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, in an interview with The Daily Star, also said that Syrian authorities had been contacted directly over the whereabouts of the seven cyclists snatched by armed men from the outskirts of the Bekaa town of Zahle on March 23.

"Emotionally, every additional day is difficult but we have taken a clear decision that we are going to handle this activity for as long as it takes," Paet said. "Our clear goal is to solve this issue and at this stage it doesn't matter how long it takes. As we know from larger statistics about different kidnappings, this kind of case may last several months or even longer."

Security officials have suggested that the men may be being kept outside of Lebanon, as information from the abduction site pointed to the kidnappers making off toward the border with Syria. Paet said that in addition to Jordan, Turkey and Egypt, Estonia had begun dialogue with authorities in Damascus.

"We officially asked Syria for assistance if they may get some information. They say they are ready to help," he said. "We are also working together with the Lebanese authorities but we also have close cooperation with other countries in the region with the goal of trying to find out what happened to our people. "

Paet spoke of the pain experienced by relatives of the seven victims.

"I guess everyone can imagine what the families are feeling. Of course, it's a difficult thing for people to deal with," he said. "The main hope is that they can get their husbands or brothers or sons [back] as soon as possible."

Lebanese security forces have made several arrests in their probe into the case, following several raids in the eastern Bekaa. In spite of this, no concrete information on the abductees has been obtained. A video of the seven men, which was posted on social media website YouTube and featured pleas to world leaders to secure their release, provoked varying responses in Estonia, Paet said.

"There were mixed feelings. One the one hand, in general terms, it is positive and the message is that the people behind this crime want to keep contact," he said. "Emotionally, for many people it is difficult to see their family on the screen."

Paet denied that there was any evidence to suggest that the seven men were taken on the basis of nationality and revealed that a Foreign Ministry warning against travel to Lebanon had been issued as far back as January.

"In the end [the travel warning] is only a recommendation and everyone is still free to go where they want. But discussion on this is not very timely. I don't have any indication to say that they were taken because they were Estonians. This kind of theory doesn't stand up to analysis. "As long as we don't know the exact reason [for the kidnapping], everything can be possible," Paet said.

Paet, who in the immediate wake of the kidnapping made two trips to see officials in Beirut, also spoke of the strain the saga was putting on his ministry.

"It's taking up quite a lot of my time. It also takes my thinking. Of course, I feel very worried. I have met with the relatives and even without this meeting I can imagine their feelings. It's a very difficult story, not just professionally," he said.

The foreign minister added that the kidnapping was likely to affect Lebanon's vital tourism season, with would-be visitors thinking twice before visiting a country in which seven foreigners can apparently disappear without trace.

"I really see direct possible effects on the Lebanese tourism industry," Paet said.

He said authorities in Estonia would wait and see the kidnappers' demands before a decision was made on what action to take to secure the men's release.

"We don't know their demands and it's not wise to speculate, our response will depend on the issue," Paet said. "It depends on very concrete circumstances."

Copyright 2011, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:May 6, 2011
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