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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.

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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.

Hussein Malla/AP

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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.

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