ANKARA / BEIRUT
Gunmen ambushed a van carrying a Turkish Airlines crew in the Lebanese capital and kidnapped two of its members, a pilot and a co-pilot, as Ankara
issued a travel advisory to Syria’s restive neighbor.
Four gunmen ambushed the van on an old airport road in Beirut, snatching the two men, both Turkish nationals, and allowing the rest to continue, according to officials.
The kidnapped men were named as pilot Murat Akpınar and co-pilot Murat Ağca. The van was traveling from the Rafik Hariri International Airport to a hotel in Beirut when the ambush took place early Aug. 9. In the wake of the incident, Lebanese soldiers were deployed to the area, with two armored personnel carriers stationed by the roadside where the kidnapping took place.
A group calling itself Zuwar al-Imam Rida (Pilgrims of Imam Riza) claimed responsibility for the kidnappings, according to Lebanese al-Jadeed TV, demanding the release of nine Lebanese hostage pilgrims being held in northern Syria in exchange.
“We announce that the Turkish captain ... and his assistant are our guests until our brothers ... who were abducted in Azaz are released,” the statement said, according to the Lebanese television station and the country’s national news agency.
It said it held Turkey responsible for the fate of the Lebanese Shiites, who were among a group of 11 men abducted in May last year by rebels in the northern town of Azaz, close to Turkey. They were seized on their return from a pilgrimage to Shiite religious sites in Iran, their families said. Two were later released.
Their kidnapping was claimed by a man who identified himself as Abu Ibrahim and said he was a member of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), but the FSA denies any involvement. Turkey is known as a staunch supporter of rebels battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said Lebanese authorities were investigating the claim by the newest group. “We haven’t heard of the so-called Zuwar al-Imam Rida,” Charbel said. The investigation will reveal whether such a group truly exists or it is “fictional,” he added.
Families of the kidnapped pilgrims have repeatedly urged Turkey to use its influence to secure their release and staged protests outside Turkish Airlines offices in Beirut.
Lebanese media quoted a spokesman for the families as saying they had no link to the Beirut abductions. But shortly after the claim of responsibility was issued, celebratory fireworks were set off in the Bir al-Abed district of southern Beirut where some of the relatives live. Two Turkish nationals were briefly abducted in Lebanon in August and September last year, following the capture of the pilgrims.
The latest incident came days after a senior Lebanese political source said authorities had information suggesting that families of the Lebanese detainees, or their supporters, were planning to take Turkish hostages.
President Abdullah Gül said discussions were made immediately after the incident. “I will also talk to the Lebanese president. I hope the pilots will soon arrive home safe and sound,” the president said.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu
called Lebanese Prime Minister Najip Mikati and Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri. Mikati and Berri expressed their sadness and vowed to make the necessary efforts to free the pilots. “We expressed our condemnation of the kidnapping, we are in the process of making every effort to determine the identities of the kidnappers,” Mikati said. “We are doing everything possible to secure the release” of the pilots, he added.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Levent Gümrükçü said the Lebanese authorities were alarmed over the incident and that an investigation was being conducted. Ankara’s ambassador to Beirut, İnan Özyıldız, said “the case is being followed closely” and that he was working with “Lebanese forces to free the two pilots.”
The Foreign Ministry also issued a travel advisory to Lebanon, urging citizens not to travel to the country except in case of emergency. The statement also called on Turkish citizens in Lebanon to return to Turkey, adding that those who must remain should take the necessary measures to guarantee their own safety.