Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Lebanon’s General Security Chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, left, speaks with Kristian Lee Baxter, centre, of Nanaimo, B.C., during a press conference in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday. Baxter was recently released from a Syrian prison to Lebanon after being held since last year.

B.C. man freed from Syria after Lebanese mediation, feared being ‘there forever’

BEIRUT — A British Columbia man detained in Syria since late last year became emotional Friday as he expressed his fears that he would never see freedom again.

“I thought I would be there forever, honestly,” Kristian Lee Baxter told a televised news conference in Beirut.

He added, wiping his eyes: “I didn’t know if anyone knew if I was alive.”

It was not clear when Baxter, who has been described by his family as a “world traveller,” was released from Syria.

Lebanon’s general security chief, Abbas Ibrahim, said Lebanese mediation helped secure Baxter’s freedom after his eight-month ordeal, adding that the Canadian would be heading home.

He said Baxter was detained for what Syrian authorities considered a “major violation” of local laws, but didn’t elaborate on comments that Syrian officials may have considered the incident security related.

“I would like to thank the Lebanese for helping me get free,” said Baxter, who is from Nanaimo and was detained in December in the war-ravaged country.

Andrea Leclair told The Canadian Press in January that her son messaged her daily because she was worried after he arrived in Syria on Nov. 26, but he went silent after his last message on Dec. 1.

Leclair described her son as “a world traveller and adventurer” and said he visited a village near the border of Lebanon at the invitation of his girlfriend’s brother-in-law. She said Baxter was supposed to be home Dec. 13 and his travel visa to Syria expired on Dec. 12 or 13.

In a statement, Leclair said the family is grateful to Global Affairs Canada for working “consistently, relentlessly, and professionally” to get her son released.

“I’m ecstatic that Kristian is on his way home,” she said.

Lawyer John Weston, with Pan Pacific Law Corp. that has been working with the family, said he had not spoken with Baxter, but reports from Beirut where he was released are that he is in better health than expected.

“He’s obviously very keen to get back to his beloved Canada and his family and seems to be doing well. He’s been through an ordeal and we will know better when he arrives back in Canada how he’s doing and how he rebounds for the long term.”

Weston said they aren’t aware of any charges that were brought against Baxter in Syria.

“There may have been some infractions relating to Syrian travel regulations but that’s conjecture at this point. What we know is that he was travelling in the Mideast, seeking to visit interesting places and wanted to go to Syria for those purposes, for purposes of visiting as a tourist.”

The federal government has been warning Canadians to avoid travelling to Syria since 2011 after the outbreak of a civil war that has attracted foreign powers and spawned a multitude of militias, including a new Islamist terror group, while leaving an estimated 500,000 people dead.

Canada severed diplomatic relations with Syria in 2012, expelling its diplomats and shuttering its embassy.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said she couldn’t comment on what the federal government might have done to help in Baxter’s release, but she used the case to remind Canadians about the dangers of travelling to unstable countries.

“This case has had a happy outcome and I am delighted and frankly relieved. And I wish the best to him and to his family and loved ones,” she told a news conference in Calgary.

“This is a case that should remind us all to exercise a high degree of caution when travelling to dangerous parts of the world. There’s been a happy outcome here. Let’s not allow this to cause us not to be careful.”

Reaching out to hold the shoulder of Canadian Ambassador Emmanuelle Lamoureux, who also attended the news conference in Beirut, Baxter acknowledged the aid of Canadian officials.

“I’d just like to thank the Canadian Embassy for helping me,” he said.

Baxter’s release marked a “wonderful day for Canadians” said Lamoureux, thanking the Lebanese authorities for helping with this “wonderful outcome.”

Global Affairs said consular services will continue to be provided to Baxter and his family.

Baxter’s release marked the second time Lebanon has helped free a foreigner held in Syria. Last month, Ibrahim mediated the release of American traveller Sam Goodwin, who had been 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 shortened 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.

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