Kidnapping of Turkish pilots in Lebanon linked to Turkish support for Syrian rebels

The group that kidnapped two Turkish pilots wants Turkey to pressure Syrian rebels to release a group of Lebanese pilgrims abducted last year.

Hussein Malla/AP
Lebanese policemen stand guard outside a hotel where the rest of a Turkish Airlines crew stayed after six gunmen ambushed their vehicle on an old airport road and snatched two of the crewmembers, a pilot and a co-pilot, according to Lebanese officials, in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday.

Two Turkish pilots were kidnapped in Beirut on Friday in retaliation for the abduction of a group of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims by Syrian rebels last year.

The brazen kidnapping near Beirut International Airport illustrates how the effects of the war in Syria continue to seep across regional borders, creating fresh tensions and difficulties outside the direct confrontation between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition.

A previously unknown group calling itself Zuwwar al-Imam Rida claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and said it would release the two men in exchange for the nine Lebanese who were kidnapped in the Azaz district of Aleppo in May last year and are reportedly being held in northern Syria.

The families of the kidnapped Lebanese have consistently accused Turkey of failing to exert sufficient influence over the rebel group holding the hostages to have them released.

Murat Akpinar, a pilot with Turkish Airlines, and Murat Agca, his co-pilot, were seized outside the airport at 3 am, when gunmen intercepted a minibus carrying them and other airline employees to a hotel. The kidnapping occurred just a few yards from a Lebanese Army checkpoint at the entrance to the airport, which lies in the southern edge of Beirut.

Zuwwar al-Imam Rida said in a statement that it held the Turkish authorities directly responsible for the abduction of the Lebanese pilgrims and that the two Turks “are our guests until the hostages in Azaz are released.”

Sheikh Abbas Zgheib, a spokesman for the families of the kidnapped Lebanese, denied that they had anything to do with the abduction of the two Turkish pilots.

Daniel Shoaib, the brother of Abbas Shoaib, one of the Lebanese hostages, told the BBC’s Arabic service that he welcomed the abduction of the two Turks but called on the kidnappers to treat them well.

The Turkish foreign ministry said that it had contacted Najib Miqati, the head of Lebanon’s caretaker government, and Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s veteran parliamentary speaker.

“Expressing grief on the incident, Miqati and Berri said no effort will be spared for the release of the Turkish pilots,” The Turkish foreign ministry tweeted.

It also advised Turkish citizens to avoid traveling to Lebanon.

Inan Ozeldiz, Turkey's ambassador to Beirut, told Lebanon's MTV television channel that he had no information on the fate of the hostages and that he refused to assign blame to any group before the investigation had been completed.

Eleven Lebanese Shiites were returning from a pilgrimage in Iran when they were abducted in May last year. A group called the Northern Storm Brigades, which operates close to the Turkish border, said it carried out the kidnapping. Only two of the Lebanese have been released.

Since then, relatives of the missing men have staged regular protests in Beirut outside the Turkish embassy and the Turkish airlines offices. The families believe that the Turkish government, which supports Syrian rebel groups, should do more to get their relatives released.

Turkey is not alone in feeling the repercussions of its influence in the Syrian civil war. Lebanon's militant Shiite Hezbollah organization has been classified as a terrorist organization by the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council because of its military intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia and other GCC states have threatened to expel any member of Hezbollah and to shut down sources of funding. Many Lebanese Shiites who work in the Gulf fear that they could be caught up in the spat and lose their jobs and residencies.

Since the conflict in neighboring Syria began two years ago, Lebanese has been beset by a wave of kidnappings. Most of the abductions are simple ransom cases, although there has been a series of tit-for-tat sectarian abductions between Sunni and Shia tribes in Lebanon’s northern Bekaa Valley. On Friday, at least three members of the Ismael clan, a powerful Shiite tribe, were abducted, reportedly by Syrian opposition rebels, from near Brital village, a staunch Hezbollah stronghold.

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