Armed men have kidnapped two Turkish pilots working for Turkish Airlines on Beirut’s airport road.
Zuwar al Imam Reda, a previously unknown group, claimed responsibility for Friday’s incident and demanded the release of a group of Lebanese Shia pilgrims kidnapped in Syria in 2012, Turkish and Lebanese press reports said.
Turkish Airlines’ press office announced that the pilots were Turkish nationals named Murat Agca and Murat Akpinar.
In a statement on the incident, Marwan Charbel, Lebanon’s interior minister, said: “A kidnapping operation took place at 3:00am targeting a bus carrying several members of a Turkish Airlines crew going from the airport to the hotel. Gunmen kidnapped two passengers from the bus, the pilot and co-pilot.”
He added that an investigation was under way.
Inan Ozyildiz, Turkey’s ambassador to Lebanon, told Turkey’s Anatolia News Agency that the pilot completed a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to Beirut and were on their way from the airport to their hotel when the abduction happened.
The seven other passengers on the targeted bus were flight attendents, he said.
“The driver and flight attendents were forced to get off from the bus, and pilot and co-pilot were kidnapped [together with the bus],” Ozyildiz said.
Shias held by group
Two Turkish nationals were briefly abducted in Lebanon last year, following the capture of nine Lebanese Shia Muslims in Syria’s northern Aleppo province and the separate detention of a Lebanese national in Damascus by rebels.
They are being held by the rebel group Northern Storm Brigade (Asifar al Shamal), which Turkey is believed to have influence over.
The abducted Shias were part of a group of pilgrims who went missing as they were returning from a pilgrimage in Iran. The women in the group and two men were released later.
A representative for the families of the kidnapped Lebanese has denied in a statement any involvement in the abduction of the Turkish pilots.
There have been several failed rounds of negotiations to free the Lebanese.
The war in Syria frequently spills over into neighbouring Lebanon.
The Turkish government is a staunch supporter of the Syrian opposition. On the other hand, Hezbollah, the armed Lebanese Shia political group, actively provides support for the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.