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Abduction of two Turkish Airlines pilots in Beirut tied to Syrian war

Gunmen kidnapped the crewmen in apparent retaliation for the yearlong detention of nine Lebanese hostages by Syrian rebels.

August 09, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell
  • Lebanese army troops patrol the airport highway in Beirut after the kidnapping of two Turkish Airlines pilots.
Lebanese army troops patrol the airport highway in Beirut after the kidnapping… (Anwar Amro, AFP/Getty Images )

BEIRUT — Gunmen waylaid a minibus carrying a Turkish Airlines crew on a road leading from Lebanon's major international airport Friday, kidnapping two pilots in an incident that appeared to be the latest fallout from the war in neighboring Syria.

A group claiming responsibility said the abduction was in retaliation for the continued detention of nine Lebanese hostages who have been held for more than a year by Syrian rebels.

The crime reverberated in two nations — Lebanon and Turkey — that have been hard-hit by the civil war in Syria, which shares a long border with both. Lebanon and Turkey have seen violence and political fallout from Syria stream into their countries, and have housed hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

After news of the kidnapping, the Turkish government issued a travel advisory, recommending that Turkish citizens leave Lebanon.

Turkey is a crucial supporter of rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad. Insurgents have used Turkish territory as a logistics and transportation hub, ferrying weapons and fighters into Syria with the apparent approval of Ankara, the capital. Turkey's population, like that of Lebanon, is deeply split about which side to support in Syria. But the government has publicly labeled Assad a dictator and called for his downfall.

The Lebanese government has sought to maintain a neutral stance. But violence from Syria has regularly spilled into Lebanon, prompting fear that the conflict could undermine its fragile democracy. Arms and fighters have also crossed from Lebanon into Syria, destined for both sides in the war.

On Friday, armed men in two vehicles intercepted a hotel minibus less than a mile from Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport and seized the pilots, leaving behind at least four crew members, according to Lebanese authorities and news reports. The bus was en route to a hotel when it was intercepted about 3 a.m., authorities said.

The crew had arrived from Istanbul on a scheduled commercial flight.

Among those interrogated afterward was the bus driver, Lebanese officials said in a statement. Lebanese news reports said that he professed his innocence.

Revenge kidnappings related to the strife in Syria have occurred with some frequency in Lebanon. Two Turks were briefly kidnapped in Lebanon last year after the abduction of the nine Lebanese in Syria. But Friday's incident — ambushing a crew from Turkey's national carrier — appeared to signal an escalation.

A group calling itself Zuwar al Imam Reda, or Pilgrims of Imam Reda, issued a statement claiming responsibility, the Lebanese government said. The group said the "guests" would be released upon the return of the nine Lebanese detained in rebel-held Syria. The use of the word "guests" was a pointed reference to how Syrian rebels have repeatedly described the Lebanese hostages.

That case has been a source of considerable tension in Lebanon. Families have pressured the government to do more to gain the hostages' release and to pressure Turkey, a close ally of Lebanon, to use its influence in the matter.

The nine were among 11 Lebanese abducted in northern Aleppo province by Syrian rebels in May 2012. Two were later freed in what the rebels called an act of goodwill.

Syrian rebels allege that the nine are operatives of Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim political and paramilitary group based in Lebanon that is a major ally of Assad. Family members of the nine say they have no connection to Hezbollah, a powerful force in Lebanon.

Relatives say the men were pilgrims on their way back to Lebanon from visiting Shiite shrines in Iran when they were kidnapped.

Syrian rebels, mostly members of the nation's Sunni Muslim majority, are fighting to overthrow Assad. Hezbollah Shiite militiamen from Lebanon have been dispatched to Syria in support of Assad's government.

Family members of the abducted Lebanese have held demonstrations outside the Turkish Embassy in Beirut and at the offices of Turkish Airlines here demanding that Ankara use its weight with the Syrian opposition to help liberate their loved ones. The families have also blocked the road to Beirut's airport on occasion. They have harshly criticized Ankara for what they call Turkey's lack of resolve in the case.

On Friday, spokesmen for relatives of the detained Lebanese denied that the families had anything to do with the pilots' abduction, according to statements in the Lebanese media. However, news of the kidnapping reportedly prompted celebratory fireworks in parts of southern Beirut, home of some of the kidnapped Lebanese.

The Turkish Airlines crewmen were identified as pilot Murat Akpinar and co-pilot Murat Agca.

Turkish Airlines, which flies to more than 237 destinations, issued a statement saying that it "has no affiliation with any political organizations" and was "deeply saddened" by the incident. Turkish Airlines is half government-owned and half privately owned, a spokeswoman said.

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