BEIRUT: Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said Sunday the Lebanese Army and security forces had mounted a manhunt to locate the two kidnapped Turkish pilots, predicting a happy end to the ordeal.
Also Sunday, police arrested the son of one of the nine Lebanese hostages held in Syria in connection with the pilots’ abduction that has jolted Lebanon, triggering a nationwide condemnation, but praise from the hostages’ families.
“All security agencies are searching for the two kidnapped Turks. Hezbollah and other parties are helping in the search,” Charbel told The Daily Star.
He declined to give additional details on where the manhunt was taking place following media reports that the kidnappers had taken their captives outside Beirut.
“We hope to reach a happy end to the case of the two kidnapped Turks. Work is ongoing to follow up on the telecoms data in the period that preceded and followed the kidnapping,” Charbel said.
Two crew members of Turkish Airlines were kidnapped at dawn Friday by unidentified gunmen near Beirut’s international airport shortly after departing the facility in an incident that has revived memories of the wave of kidnappings that targeted foreigners during the 1975-90 Civil War.
The kidnapping of Turkish Airlines pilot Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca appeared linked to demands for the release of Lebanese hostages held by Syrian rebels in northern Syria since May last year.
A hitherto unknown group, calling itself Zuwwar al-Imam Ali al-Reda, named after a Shiite imam, has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. The group, which roughly translates into “the visitors of the shrine of Imam Ali al-Reda,” demanded in a statement the release of the nine remaining Lebanese pilgrims in Syria, saying: “Visitors’ [Lebanese hostages’] return: pilots release.”
In a development linked to the kidnapping of the two Turks, the Lebanese Army deployed Sunday night on the airport road and set up observation points to prevent attempts by the families of the Lebanese hostages in Syria to block it.
The Army move came shortly after Adham Zogheib, a spokesman for the hostages’ families, was reported to have issued a one-hour ultimatum to the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch to release Mohammad Saleh, a son of the nine hostages in Syria, or else the families would take escalatory measures, including cutting off the airport road and disrupting flights at the facility.
Al-Jadeed TV station said Saleh was arrested by Information Branch personnel after allegedly detecting his phone contacts with the kidnappers of the two Turkish pilots.
However, Sheikh Abbas Zogheib, tasked by the Higher Shiite Council to follow up on the case of the Lebanese hostages in Syria, denied reports that the hostages’ families planned to disrupt flights at Beirut airport in response to Saleh’s arrest.
“The families [of the hostages] will not do anything. They will neither cut off the airport road, nor cripple the air traffic at the airport,” Zogheib told The Daily Star. He added that the case of Saleh was being handled calmly in order to secure his release.A Syrian rebel group holding the nine Lebanese hostages in Azaz said it was ready to free the first batch of the hostages in exchange for the Syrian regime’s release of 127 women prisoners. The group, calling itself the Azaz Northern Storm Brigade, said in a statement it was the only one tasked with the issue of the Lebanese hostages.
“There is nothing to negotiate over except the women prisoners,” the group said.
The Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV channel reported that gunmen were moving the Lebanese hostages from Azaz to a Turkish town.
The hostages’ families have denied involvement in the kidnapping of the two Turks. “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,” Sheikh Zogheib told The Daily Star.
In response to the abduction, Turkey urged its citizens to leave Lebanon and avoid travel to the country for their own safety.
But Turkish Ambassador to Lebanon Inan Ozeldiz said the embassy had asked only Turkish tourists to leave Lebanon and that there had been coordination with the Lebanese authorities to release the two pilots.
“We did not ask Turkish nationals to leave Lebanon but only tourists because we are concerned over their safety,” Ozeldiz told The Daily Star.
He hoped that the incident would not affect Lebanese-Turkish ties and said the Lebanese security forces have been cooperative in the case.
“We are now focused on finding a solution to the problem in cooperation with the Lebanese authorities to get the Turkish captives released; our main concern is that they are in good health,” he said.
Ozeldiz said that the kidnapping of the pilots should not be linked to the Azaz hostages “because Turkey is not responsible for abducting the Lebanese pilgrims.”
He added that Turkey was trying to help resolve the case of Lebanese hostages in Azaz.
Top Lebanese leaders condemned the kidnapping, promising action to secure the release of the two Turks.
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.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai denounced the kidnapping as a “shameful” act and called for the release of the Lebanese hostages as well as two Orthodox Syrian bishops held by Syrian rebels. – With additional reporting by Jana al-Hassan