Two Turkish pilots kidnapped by Shiite gunmen in Beirut
BEIRUT // Two Turkish Airlines pilots were kidnapped near Beirut's airport by Shiite gunmen on Friday, highlighting Lebanon's growing security problems caused by the war in Syria.
The incident was a response to the abduction in Syria last year of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims, nine of whom are still being held.
Turkey has been one of the most ardent supporters of insurgents fighting to overthrow Bashar Al Assad's regime in Syria.
A Lebanese Shiite group calling itself Zuwwar Imam Reda claimed responsibility for the abduction of the two pilots, said Lebanon's official National News Agency.
At least six gunmen abducted the pilots at 3am after stopping a bus carrying them and seven other passengers from the airport to a hotel in the city. Only the pilots, identified as Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca, were taken.
Turkey has warned its citizens against non-essential travel to Lebanon and has urged those in the country to return home.
In May last year, a man claiming to be a member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) claimed he was holding the pilgrims, but the group itself has denied any connection.
The man, Abu Ibrahim, said the pilgrims were members of Hizbollah, Lebanon's militant Shiite group, a key backer of Mr Al Assad.
The FSA, an umbrella group of rebel fighters, has denied any involvement in the kidnapping.
Family members of the pilgrims have focused their protests on Turkey, which they say has not used its influence among Syrian rebels to free them. They have held demonstrations outside a Turkish Airlines office in Beirut.
Turkey is supporting the Syrian rebels, allowing them to use its southern border to launch operations and smuggle weapons into the countryside.
"We immediately contacted the Lebanese authorities at every level ... and they are conducting a very comprehensive investigation," said a Turkish foreign ministry spokesman, Levent Gumrukcu, according to Reuters. "As yet, we do not know who did it or for what purpose."
The incident underscored the fragile situation in Lebanon, which has seen a steady increase of violence related to the Syrian conflict over the past two years.
Sectarian tensions have erupted in gun battles and, this year, Lebanon has witnessed bombings and artillery fire related to the war raging less than 80 kilometres away from Beirut. The Syrian rebels have vowed to chase Hizbollah "to hell" for siding with the Assad regime.
Hizbollah has maintained that the uprising against the Syrian regime was bolstered by a western and Israeli conspiracy intended to weaken resistance against Israeli occupation of Palestine. In June, its fighters helped the Assad regime to recover a crucial strategic village, Qusayr, near the border between Lebanon and Syria.
* With Agence France-Presse, Reuters and Bloomberg News
Published: August 10, 2013 04:00 AM