Kidnapped Germans freed in Lebanon but held over 'drugs'

BEIRUT - Two German men kidnapped in eastern Lebanon were freed on Saturday, hours after their abduction, but police immediately arrested them on drug trafficking charges, the official National News Agency reported.

"The Germans abducted last night in the eastern Bekaa Valley were released today," NNA said.

"After they were freed, a police unit from the Internal Security Force arrested the Germans on charges of drug trafficking, and a search for the abductors is underway," it reported.

A German government spokeswoman confirmed the pair were "now in the hands of the Lebanese police".

"The embassy and the German ministry of foreign affairs are dealing with this case," the ministry spokeswoman told AFP in Berlin.

"We are in contact with both the Germans and all relevant authorities in this case," she said, without giving a reason for their detention.

The Germans were seized on Friday by unknown gunmen demanding a ransom for their release, in what a security official said appeared to be a criminal rather than a political act.

The official told AFP late Friday that the abduction was more likely "for financial reasons", adding that a Lebanese man had called a friend of the Germans demanding ransom of 6,000 euros ($8,000).

The Bekaa Valley, on the border with war-hit Syria, is a lawless but fertile region where drug cultivation and trafficking has flourished for years.

The area is a bastion of the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, but also home to powerful tribes, some of which produce hashish in defiance of the law.

During the 1975-1990 civil war, the drug trade grew into a multi-billion dollar industry in Lebanon.

The Lebanese authorities have struggled to eradicate the drug trade and carry out repeated army and police patrols in the region.

Friday's kidnapping took place in Shrifa, a Christian village located near areas of the Bekaa where hashish is cultivated.

It was unclear what the Germans were doing in Shrifa, some 15 kilometres (10 miles) from Baalbek, the provincial capital.

Friday's was the first kidnapping of Westerners in the Bekaa since 2011, when a group of Estonian cyclists were abducted and held for four months.

The seven Estonians were kidnapped by an extremist group, which had reportedly demanded ransom for their release.

More recently, two Turkish pilots were kidnapped in August on the road linking Beirut to its international airport.

They were freed last month as part of a hostage exchange deal that secured the release of nine Lebanese Shiites held by rebels in neighbouring Syria.

Reports of politically and financially motivated kidnappings, most of them involving Lebanese, frequently emerge in the fragile Mediterranean country.