BEIRUT: Gunmen kidnapped early Friday two Turkish Airlines pilots headed to a Beirut hotel shortly after they arrived in the country, security sources said, and a group claimed responsibility for the abduction demanding the release of Lebanese hostages being held in Syria.
The early morning kidnapping of Turkish Airlines pilot Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca prompted Ankara to urge its citizens to leave Lebanon.
Akpinar and Agca were forced out of a shuttle bus at the Cocodi Bridge, less than a kilometer from Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport, after 3 a.m. and taken away by six gunmen, security sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
The sources said the gunmen drove off in a silver BMW X3 and a black KIA Picanto after kidnapping the two from the shuttle, which serves the Radisson Blu Martinez Hotel in Beirut’s Ain al-Mreisseh.
The driver of the bus, 72-year-old Maher Mohammad Zeaiter, told police he was unable to prevent the gunmen from taking the Turks, fearing for the safety of his 12-year-old son who he said was in the vehicle at the time.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said the bus driver was being interrogated as part of the investigation into the incident.
Zeaiter denied any role in the abduction, telling The Daily Star he has “been a trusted employee at the hotel for 13 years.”
A group calling itself Zuwwar al-Imam Ali al-Reda claimed responsibility for the abduction, demanding the release of nine Shiite pilgrims who have been held by Syrian rebels since 2012.
The nine pilgrims were among 11 Lebanese kidnapped by the Syrian opposition in May 2012 in the Azaz district of Aleppo. Only two of the kidnapped Lebanese have been released.
“[The Turkish nationals] are our guests until the hostages in Azaz are released,” the group, which has previously threatened to target Turkish and Syrian nationals in Lebanon, said.
“Visitors’ [Lebanese hostages’] return: pilots release,” the group said in the statement, holding Ankara directly responsible for the abduction of the Lebanese Shiites.
There was no proof of authenticity.
Turkish interests in Lebanon have come under threat over the case of the Lebanese hostages. Families of the kidnapped have held several rounds of protests outside the offices of Turkish Airlines in the Lebanese capital and the Turkish Embassy, holding Ankara responsible for the abduction given its backing of the rebels seeking to topple President Bashar Assad.
The relatives denied any involvement in the kidnapping of Akpinar and Agca.
"We have nothing to do with it and we were surprised and heard about it from the news just like everybody else,” Daniel Shoeb, a spokesperson for the relatives, told local media.
“The steps we take are public and we were preparing a protest outside the Turkish Embassy and we reject kidnappings,” he added.
Sheikh Abbas Zogheib, tasked by the Higher Shiite Council to follow up on the case of the Lebanese hostages in Syria, also said the families played no role in the incident.
“The relatives have nothing to do with it ... but every Lebanese that has dignity and love for his country should do anything to end the case of the Lebanese,” Zogheib told The Daily Star.
“The only condemnation here should be toward Turkey because it is the one that made the situation reach this point and harm Turkey-Lebanon relations,” he added.
In response to the abduction, Turkey urged its citizens to leave Lebanon and avoid travel to the country for their own safety.
The Turkish Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement Ankara looked to the Lebanese government to ensure the safety of Turkish residents in Lebanon.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who spoke to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu earlier in the day, said kidnappings in Lebanon were “unacceptable” and resolving the case of the Lebanese hostages should not occur at the expense “of the state's prestige, the rule of law or human dignity.”
“Lebanese security forces are on alert and searching for the kidnapped in order to release them,” Mikati said, according to a statement from his office.
Anadolu News Agency, quoting diplomatic sources, said Davutoglu had contacted both Mikati and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri over the incident.
Mikati and Berri expressed their grief over the abduction, saying the incident should not affect ties between Beirut and Ankara, the Turkish state-run agency said.
Earlier in the day, Turkish Ambassador to Lebanon Inan Ozyildiz contacted Lebanon’s caretaker interior minister seeking clarifications on the abduction, Lebanon’s National News Agency said.
President Michel Sleiman told his Turkish counterpart during a phone conversation that Lebanese authorities were exerting serious efforts to secure the release of the kidnapped Turks, according to a statement from Baabda Palace.
For his part, Turkish President Abdullah Gul noted the continued efforts by Ankara to help release the Lebanese hostages held in Syria and expressed hope that the pilgrims would be returned home safely.
Sources at Turkish Airlines told The Daily Star that the Airbus 321 pilots had disembarked at Terminal 16 of the Beirut airport after arriving from Istanbul.
The sources said the shuttle bus included other crew members of flight TK828 who were headed back to their hotel.
The remaining crew members left to Istanbul on board a Turkish Airlines plane around 4:30 p.m., flown in specifically to transport the airline employees out of the country.
Investigators are looking at surveillance cameras at the airport in order to track the activity of the pilots from the point they arrived in Beirut until they boarded the shuttle, the sources said.
They added that a request would be sent to the Telecommunications Ministry for the release of telecoms data in order to track foreign and local phone calls as well as the driver's mobile phone activity.
Airport staff including those at the traffic control tower will be interrogated. – With additional reporting by Thomas El-Basha and Brooke Anderson