Two Turkish pilots working for Turkish Airlines have been been kidnapped by armed men in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
“A kidnapping operation took place at 3:00 am 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” Lebanon’s Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said.
Zuwar al Imam Reda, a previously unknown group, claimed responsibility for Friday’s abduction 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.
Inan Ozyildiz, Turkey’s ambassador to Lebanon, told Turkey’s Anatolia News Agency that the pilots had flown 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 attendants, he said.
“The driver and flight attendants were forced to get off from the bus, and pilot and co-pilot were kidnapped [together with the bus],” Ozyildiz said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on social networking site Twitter that no effort will be spared to secure the release of the pilots.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul also commented on the incident and told that he would soon speak to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.
Turkey also warned it citizens against non-essential travel to Lebanon and called on those already in the country to return home.
Two Turkish nationals were briefly abducted in Lebanon last year, following the capture of 11 Lebanese Shia Muslims in Syria’s northern Aleppo province, two of whom have since been released, and the separate detention of a Lebanese national in Damascus by rebels.
They are reportedly being held by the rebel group Northern Storm Brigade (Asifar al Shamal). Turkey is said to wield influence over the group.
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.