‘I thought I would be there forever,’ says Canadian freed from Syria

Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, left, Lebanon's General Security Chief, speaks with Canadian citizen Kristian Lee Baxter, center, who was released from Syrian prisons to Lebanon, during a press conference in Beirut, Lebanon, on Friday. (Photo/Supplied)
Updated 09 August 2019

‘I thought I would be there forever,’ says Canadian freed from Syria

  • Baxter appeared to be slender and highly emotional at the General Security Headquarters in Beirut

BEIRUT: Canadian Kristian Lee Baxter, 44, who was detained for nine months in Syria, was released after Lebanese officials stepped in to ensure his freedom.

Baxter appeared at the General Security Headquarters in Beirut with the Canadian Ambassador to Lebanon Emmanuelle Lamoureux and the director-general of the Lebanese General Security Directorate, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim. Baxter appeared to be slender and highly emotional.

“The Syrian state has cooperated with us by releasing a former American hostage (journalist Austin Tice, who was held in Syria from 2012) and today a Canadian citizen,” said Ibrahim.

He added: “Baxter was detained in Syria last year for violating their laws, and I renew my thanks to the Syrian state for cooperation and shortening his detention.”

Ibrahim said his mediation with Syria was based on “the request of Canada, which asked Lebanon to intervene to release him. I informed President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Thursday about the results of the process.”

Ibrahim said the successful release is “in Lebanon’s interest because it brings us back to the world map.”

Commenting on Lebanese journalist Samir Kassab and Archbishops John Ibrahim and Paul Yazji, who have been missing in Syria for years, Ibrahim said: “The issue is being followed up, but we have no information that we can announce at the moment.”

Ibrahim was asked about the sentence issued against Lebanese businessman Qassem Tajeddine, 63, in the US. “Things have become clear with the court ruling,” he said, adding that he had visited Tajeddine while he was on an official visit to the US and that “he was in difficult health conditions. I hope he has improved.”

On Thursday, a US court sentenced Tajeddine to five years in prison and a $50 million (SR185m) fine for circumventing sanctions imposed on him as a “significant financial contributor to Hezbollah,” according to the US Justice Department.

Lamoureux expressed her country’s gratitude to Ibrahim and the role he played in bringing Baxter to his family. “Today is a glorious day for Canadians,” she said.

The envoy declined to give any details of the negotiations or to comment on the case “because of Canada’s privacy laws.”

Baxter tried to speak to journalists, but he was lost for words: “I thought I would be there forever. I didn’t know if anyone knew if I was alive.”

He thanked the Canadian Embassy and the Lebanese authorities for their assistance in his release.

He looked very emotional and burst into tears. The Canadian ambassador also became emotional before she ended the press conference.

Baxter, who is from British Columbia, had gone to Syria “in search of adventure in a war-torn country,” according to the Canadian Press.

His mother, Andrea Leclair, said at the time that her son was a “world traveler, adventurer, history lover and uses a metal detector as a hobby, but he didn’t realize it was not allowed across the border.

“He told me he was meeting nice people and that he was offered food, tea and coffee everywhere he went. He was having a great time before he went missing,” she said.

Leclair added that she lost contact with her son on Dec. 1. He had arrived in Syria on Nov. 26 and was contacting her daily, but after she received the last message from him she discovered that “there was no Canadian Embassy operating in Syria.”

The Canadian government has warned its citizens not to travel to Syria since the war started in 2011. Canada severed diplomatic relations with the country in 2012 and closed its embassy.


UN agency for Palestinian refugees on tenterhooks over probe

A Palestinian refugee holds a placard at a school belonging to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in the town of Sebline east of the southern Lebanese port of Saida, on March 12, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 22 October 2019

UN agency for Palestinian refugees on tenterhooks over probe

  • UNRWA’s budget for this year is $1.2 billion, with around 90 percent of that being linked to paying for the 30,000 staff it employees, most of them teachers, doctors and nurses

BRUSSELS: The UN agency for Palestinian refugees is waiting anxiously on the outcome this month of a probe into alleged mismanagement that has dented its already severely depleted funding, one of its top officials said Monday.
The UN Relief and Works Agency hopes the results of the investigation will enable it to get past the scandal that has worsened a cash crunch threatening the school and health services it provides to 5 million Palestinians.
UNRWA’s director for West Bank operations Gwyn Lewis told AFP in Brussels: “We’re waiting with bated breath because it obviously has financial implications.”
She said the conclusions of the probe are expected to be delivered “around the end of October” to UN chief Antonio Guterres, who would then issue public and internal “follow-up steps.”
The timing is crucial as the agency’s three-year mandate is up for renewal this month, and money is tight.
UNRWA has been skating on very thin financial ice since last year, after US President Donald Trump decided to suspend, then yank entirely his country’s contribution to the agency’s budget, robbing it of its top donor.
Those woes were compounded by the allegations of abuse by the agency’s management, leading other key donors — the Netherlands and Switzerland — to snap shut their purses.
That has left the agency struggling to provide the schooling, medical and sanitary programs it runs for Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza.
According to a copy of an internal UN report obtained by AFP in July, senior management at UNRWA engaged in “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain.”

FASTFACT

The UN Relief and Works Agency hopes the results of the investigation will enable it to get past the scandal that has worsened a cash crunch threatening the school and health services it provides to 5 million Palestinians.

Lewis did not confirm those allegations, noting only “rumors” and leaks to the media.
“None of us have actually seen it,” she said of the report, adding: “Our sense is that it’s not about financial misappropriation or corruption, it’s linked to management and human resources issues.”
She did note that the agency’s deputy chief, Sandra Mitchell, had been replaced in August by an acting deputy commissioner-general tasked with strengthening human resources and financial oversight.
Lewis said she was in Brussels for two days of meetings with European Commission officials to shore up UNRWA’s mandate renewal and, importantly, to maintain funding.
Despite program cutbacks, the agency faces an $89 million shortfall for the rest of this year, she said, and “financial uncertainty” beyond that.
UNRWA’s budget for this year is $1.2 billion, with around 90 percent of that being linked to paying for the 30,000 staff it employees, most of them teachers, doctors and nurses. Making up for the pulled US funding was a “challenge,” she said.