By: Rob Gillies
A Canadian citizen held in Syrian prisons since last year and freed after Lebanese mediation said Friday he had no idea if anyone knew he was still alive.
Kristian Lee Baxter appeared emotional and at times jittery at a press conference in the Lebanese capital Beirut. The Lebanese general who mediated his release said Baxter was heading home. It was not clear when Baxter was released from Syria.
Details of Baxter’s detention were not immediately available but Canadian media reported last December he was detained while in war-torn Syria, where he was traveling seeking an adventure. Canadian officials declined to provide further information, citing privacy provisions.
Lebanon’s General Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim said Baxter was detained for what Syrian authorities considered a “major violation” of local laws, adding that authorities there may have considered the incident security related. He didn’t elaborate.
Baxter appeared briefly on a podium, shared with Ibrahim and the Canadian ambassador to Lebanon, Emmanuelle Lamoureux. He was emotional and choked on his words as he tried to hold back tears.
“I’d just like to thank the Canadian embassy for helping me,” Baxter said, reaching to hold the shoulder of the Canadian ambassador. “I would like to thank the Lebanese for helping me get free. I thought I would be there forever, honestly.”
He added, wiping his eyes: “I didn’t know if anyone knew if I was alive.”
Baxter’s release marked the second time Lebanon has helped free a foreigner held in Syria.
Last month, Ibrahim also mediated the release of an American traveler, Sam Goodwin, held in Syria for two months.
The circumstances of Goodwin’s detention in northeastern Syria in May were unclear.
“I think the work and effort we did shorten the period of (Baxter’s) detention and as you see he is on his way to Canada,” Ibrahim said Friday before Baxter spoke.
Syrian prisons are brimming with government opponents after nearly nine years of civil war. Rebels were also responsible for a wave of kidnapping for ransom, while Islamic State militants beheaded foreign captives as part of their terror campaign.
It is not known how many westerners and foreign nationals are held alive in Syria if any.
U.S. officials believe journalist Austin Tice is alive since he was captured in Syria in 2012 but it’s not clear who is holding him.
Ibrahim said the mediation efforts put his country in a good light. Lebanon is struggling with one of the world’s highest public debts, a government deadlocked over personal rivalries while the country’s most powerful political group is shunned internationally and facing U.S. sanctions accused of terrorism and for its close ties with Iran.
“To be honest, this benefits Lebanon generally,” Ibrahim said. “We need this image at the moment.”
Lamoureux said Baxter’s release marked a “wonderful day for Canadians” and he thanked the Lebanese authorities for helping with this “wonderful outcome.”
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said she could not comment on how Canada was involved in securing his release but she thanked Lebanon. Canada does not have relations with Syria.
“This case has had a happy outcome and I am delighted and frankly relieved. And I wish the best to him and his family and loved ones who I am sure will have a great weekend,” she said. “But I think this is also a case that should remind us all to exercise a high degree of caution when traveling to dangerous parts of the world. There has been a happy outcome here. Let’s not have it cause us to not be careful.”
A warning against travel to Syria has been in place since the war broke out in the Middle Eastern country in 2011. Canada severed relations with Damascus in 2012, like many other western and Arab countries, who criticized the bloody government crackdown on what started as peaceful protests. The war has since claimed more than 450,000 lives, displaced half the population and left the country in dire devastation.