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

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.