Lebanese troops patrol the airport road on the southern outskirts of Beirut… (Anwar Amro / AFP/Getty Images )
BEIRUT -- Gunmen early Friday waylaid a minibus carrying a Turkish Airlines crew on a road leading from Lebanon’s major international airport, kidnapping the pilot and co-pilot and taking them to an unknown destination, authorities said.
The brazen abduction was widely viewed here as the latest fallout from the war in neighboring Syria.
Eight armed people in a pair of vehicles intercepted the hotel minibus less than a mile from Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport at 3 a.m. local time and seized the two pilots, leaving behind four other crew members who were also on the bus, according to Lebanese authorities and media accounts. The bus was en route to an area hotel, authorities said.
The crew was from a scheduled commercial flight that had arrived from Istanbul, Lebanese media reported. Turkey’s ambassador to Lebanon, Inan Ozyildiz, was in contact with Lebanese officials about the case, authorities said.
The bus driver is among those being interrogated in the investigation, Lebanese officials said in a statement.
Turkey has been a major supporter of rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Lebanese population is deeply split on the civil war raging next door.
The Lebanese government has officially taken a neutral stand in the more than two-year Syrian conflict. But violence from Syria has regularly spilled across the border, prompting fears that the conflict could further destabilize Lebanon’s fragile democracy.
No group immediately took responsibility for Friday's kidnapping. Tit-for-tat kidnappings related to the strife in Syria have occurred with some frequency in Lebanon. But Friday’s incident -- waylaying a crew from Turkey’s national airline on an airport-area road -- signaled a potential escalation.
Media reports here speculated about a link between the kidnapping and the more than yearlong abduction by a Syrian rebel brigade of nine Lebanese citizens inside opposition-held territory in northern Syria. The case has been a source of considerable tension here.
Syrian rebels allege that the nine are affiliated with Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim political and paramilitary group based in Lebanon. Family members of the nine say their relatives were pilgrims visiting a Shiite shrine when kidnapped inside Syria, and have no connection to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah is a major ally of the Assad government. Syrian rebels, mostly from the nation’s Sunni Muslim majority, are fighting to overthrow Assad’s rule. Hezbollah militiamen from Lebanon have been dispatched to Syria in support of Assad's government.
Family members of the nine kidnapped Lebanese have held demonstrations outside the Turkish Embassy in Beirut and the offices of Turkish Airlines here demanding that Ankara use its influence to free their loved ones. The families of the nine have also blocked Beirut’s airport road on occasion.
A spokesman for relatives of the nine kidnapped Lebanese denied to Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper that the families had anything to do with Friday’s abduction of the Turkish pilots.