Lebanon in fierce hunt for kidnappers of Turks
A member of Turkish engineering construction company, an unit of the UNIFIL, enters the company’s base along the Lebanon-Israel Border. AFP PhotoThe abduction of two Turkish pilots has dealt a heavy blow to Lebanon’s security and stability, the country’s top diplomat has said, while vowing to rescue the men.
Despite the blow, Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour told Anadolu Agency that the incident would not negatively affect relations between Turkey and Lebanon.
“The abduction will not affect the political, economic and cultural relations between the two sides. Discussions between the Turkish and Lebanese sides continue in a bid to end this incident happily,” Mansour said. “The pilots will surely be rescued.”
The two Turkish Airlines pilots, Murat Akpınar and Murat Ağca, were kidnapped in the early hours of Aug. 9 on the Beirut airport road as they travelled on a bus with their crew to a hotel.
A previously unknown group calling itself Zuwwar Imam Ali al-Rida claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, saying it was intended to put pressure on the abductors of nine Lebanese pilgrims who went missing in Syria in May 2012.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel pledged Aug. 10 that his government would make “exceptional efforts” to secure the release of the pilots. “The Lebanese state is making exceptional efforts to free them. The security services are sparing no effort,” Lebanon’s National News Agency quoted Charbel as saying.
Lebanese authorities have responded to the incident by boosting security for tourists, particularly Turkish nationals, in the country. A list of names of all Turkish tourists in Lebanon has been circulated to security and concerned agencies, according to Lebanese media. Lebanese security forces also accompanied a bus carrying Turkish tourists visiting the eastern Lebanon towns of Zahle and Baalbek.
Soldiers deployed along the airport road after the abduction and police could be seen patrolling downtown Beirut area where the offices of Turkish Airlines and a Turkish cultural center are located.
“We are continuing the investigation to find the two Turks. ... Lebanon is against any kidnapping, and the state is doing everything in its power to free them,” Charbel said.
Meanwhile, Turkey plans to pull out troops from the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, UNIFIL, Turkish and U.N. sources said Aug. 10, while denying that the decision was linked to the kidnappings.
“An approximately 250-person engineering construction force will not be actively involved in UNIFIL in the coming period,” a Turkish diplomatic source told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity.
Both Turkish and U.N. sources said the troop withdrawal decision was made long before the kidnapping. “On the 6th of August, we have been informed by the department of peacekeeping operations that the Turkish government decided to withdraw the Turkish engineering construction company,” UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti said. The Turkish source confirmed that the pullout decision was made in conjunction with UNIFIL’s own needs.
“The mandate of our force was extended in early July. At that time, it was also decided that there would be some changes in the configuration of our force, but the decision on this was entirely made in line with UNIFIL’s own needs and it has nothing to do with the latest incident,” the source said.
Turkey will, however, maintain its presence in UNIFIL with the maritime task force. “Our units at the maritime task force whose numbers periodically vary between 100 and 300 will remain in charge,” according to the Turkish diplomatic source. The U.N. spokesperson described the move as a regular process.
UNIFIL was established in 1978 in south Lebanon following Israel’s initial invasion of the country that year. Its mission was extended and enlarged after Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006, with a current 13,000-strong force sourced from several countries.
Turkey is the first Muslim country to provide reinforcements for the mission, in a bid to keep the peace along the hostile border, although no U.N. mission sits on Israel’s side of the border.