Five Czechs missing in Lebanon: Kidnapped for money or politics?

Lebanon's kidnapping business was once political, though recently has been more about ransom. Suspicions in the Czechs' case have focused on their missing driver.

Ahmad Shalha/Reuters/File
A general view is seen of the town of Arsal in 2013. Sunni militants in the town of Arsal in the northeast Bekaa Valley have been responsible for some kidnappings, snatching local people and, two years ago, a handful of foreign journalists.

Five Czech nationals went missing in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley over the weekend in a case that has puzzled investigators and focused suspicions on their taxi driver.

Were they kidnapped? And if so, was it for money – the latest trend in the abduction business in the often-lawless part of the country – or for political motives, harkening back to an earlier era?

Lebanon became associated with kidnappings in the war-torn 1980s when dozens of foreigners were abducted, mainly by Shiite militants seeking the release of Lebanese detainees from Israeli jails. The kidnappings halted at the end of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, and the hostages were released.

But lately, the phenomenon has returned, although this time the motive for the abductions is usually money rather than politics. Kidnappers have targeted local businessmen or their relatives, often demanding millions of dollars to secure their release. Sunni militants in the town of Arsal in the northeast Bekaa Valley have been responsible for some kidnappings, snatching local people and, two years ago, a handful of foreign journalists.

The Bekaa is dominated by powerful Shiite and Sunni tribes, and state control traditionally has been loose. Last year, the Lebanese army launched a crackdown in the region to end the endemic disorder. Car thieves, drug traffickers, kidnappers, and currency counterfeiters were hunted down and dozens of arrests made before the security sweep ended. But a weak economy and the lure of easy cash are spurring a renewed wave of abductions.

Among recent victims were a bank manager who was snatched by armed men in Chtaura in the Bekaa Valley and a six-year-old boy kidnapped from his hometown of Amchit north of Beirut. The boy was released two days later in exchange for $50,000. Police subsequently arrested the kidnapper and recovered the ransom money.

The Czech case appears to be different, however, confounding investigators. The five men and their Lebanese taxi driver went missing in the village of Kefraya in the southern Bekaa. The army found their abandoned minibus, luggage, and cameras.

“Things are still vague and the reasons behind the kidnapping remain unknown,” Samir Hammoud, Lebanon’s state prosecutor, told the Arabic Asharq al-Awsat newspaper Monday. “We don’t know if there are political or financial motives.”

The apparent abduction grew more intriguing when it turned out that the missing Lebanese driver, Saeb Taan-Fayyed, is the brother of Ali Taan-Fayyed, one of three people arrested last year in the Czech capital Prague on drugs and terrorism charges. Ali Taan-Fayyed was accused of attempting to sell cocaine and weapons to two undercover US agents pretending to be members of the militant Colombian group FARC. A US extradition request was turned down in June by a Czech appeals court.

The connection has prompted intense media speculation in Lebanon that Saeb Taan-Fayyed was responsible for the kidnapping of the five Czech nationals to pressure for his brother’s release.

Vladimir Ricica, a Czech defense lawyer representing Ali Taan-Fayyed, said his client “absolutely rules out any connection between the disappearance of the missing persons and his family,” according to the Czech CTK agency.

In August 2013, a Turkish pilot and his copilot were kidnapped by relatives of nine Lebanese Shiites who had been abducted by militants in Syria. The Lebanese hostages and two Turks were released in a prisoner exchange two months later after the Turkish government used its influence with the Syrian kidnappers.

In March 2011, seven Estonian cyclists were kidnapped in the Bekaa Valley by a gang of Lebanese and Syrians. They were released four months later, reportedly in exchange for a ransom.

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