BEIRUT: The case of the two kidnapped Turkish pilots took an alarming twist Monday when the families of the nine Lebanese hostages in Syria threatened to abduct any Turkish citizen in Beirut and its suburbs to protest the detention of a relative by the police’s Information Branch.
The development came as security agencies were searching for Ali Jamil Saleh, a son of one of the nine Lebanese hostages held by rebels in Syria’s Aleppo district of Azaz, a judicial source told The Daily Star.
Saleh is suspected of being the mastermind behind last week’s abduction of the two Turkish pilots near Beirut airport, the source said.
The hostages’ families Sunday threatened to block the airport road and disrupt flights at the facility in response to the arrest of Mohammad Saleh, a relative of the hostages, by the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch over his suspected involvement in the kidnapping of the two Turks.
The source said that Saleh’s arrest was triggered after he received several calls on his mobile phone congratulating him on the Turks’ abduction.
“Any Turkish citizen in the southern suburbs and the city of Beirut is a target for [kidnapping] by the families of the Lebanese hostages,” Hayat Awali, a spokesperson for the families of the hostages, told reporters in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
“It has been proven to us that the detention of [Mohammad Saleh] is a political move by the Information Branch and a gift from them to Turkey,” Awali said. “Therefore, and in response to that, a large group of the families of hostages in Azaz are heading to Beirut streets and any Turk seen there will be kidnapped,” she added.
Awali, flanked by the hostages’ families, voiced support for the abduction of the two Turks, saying: “Their kidnapping will help bring an end to our case [Lebanese hostages in Syria].”
Turkey urged its citizens to avoid travel to Lebanon or to leave the country shortly after Turkish Airlines pilot Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca were snatched by gunmen out of a shuttle bus near the airport last Friday.
A group calling itself Zuwwar al-Imam Ali al-Reda has claimed responsibility for the abduction, demanding in exchange the release of the nine Lebanese Shiites who were kidnapped by Syrian rebels in May 2012.
The hostages’ families, who have targeted Turkish interests in Lebanon through protests and sit-ins, blame Ankara for the continued detention of their loved ones and argue that Turkey, given its support for the Syrian opposition, has the ability to secure their safe return home.
Awali demanded the release of Mohammad Saleh. “[Caretaker] Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told us that there was no evidence against this man and that he will be released, but he is still [in custody],” she said.
She spoke hours after a delegation from the hostages’ families had met Charbel to discuss developments in the case of the Lebanese hostages in Syria and Saleh’s detention.
Daniel Shoueib, a member of the delegation that met Charbel, said Ali Jamil Saleh, who is wanted by the authorities for allegedly being the mastermind behind the kidnapping of the two Turks, physically could not have carried out the abduction.
“Ali Jamil Saleh, who's said to have carried out the kidnapping is hemiplegic,” Shoueib told The Daily Star.
Speaking to Al-Jadeed TV station, Ali Saleh, who said he was hit by a cluster bomb explosion in south Lebanon, offered to surrender to the Lebanese authorities if this would lead to securing the release of the Lebanese hostages in Syria.
“I am ready to turn myself in [to authorities] but let them bring back the kidnapped [Lebanese],” he said.
Shoueib said that Charbel contacted him to protest the families’ threats to kidnap Turkish nationals.
Sheikh Abbas Zogheib, tasked by the Higher Shiite Council to follow up on the case of the Lebanese hostages in Syria, urged the families to wait before carrying out their threats to kidnap Turkish nationals. “I call on the families to let the language of wisdom predominate over the Information Branch’s instinct reactions,” he told the National News Agency.
Describing the meeting with Charbel as “positive,” Zogheib said: “The Turkish state is responsible for the return of the nine kidnapped [Lebanese] to Lebanon.”
Meanwhile, Turkey kept its cultural and trade centers in Beirut closed over the two pilots’ abduction as Lebanese authorities took measures to protect Turkish interests in the country.
Turkish Ambassador to Lebanon Inan Ozyildiz, in comments to An-Nahar newspaper Monday, said the decision to temporarily close the Turkish Commercial Center and the Turkish Cultural Center in Beirut was taken Friday following the two pilots’ kidnapping.A Lebanese Army unit has been dispatched to boost security around the Turkish centers as well as the Turkish Airlines in Downtown Beirut. Lebanese soldiers in seven military trucks were seen deployed in the vicinity of the Turkish interests.
Security sources said Lebanese authorities were also keeping a close watch over Turkish tourists in Lebanon, staying up-to-date with their activities.
The Army also 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.
Charbel said a decision had been made to prevent blocking the airport road. “I don’t think they [hostages’ families] will resort to this means because sympathy will be against them,” Charbel told the Voice of Lebanon radio station, adding that it was up to the prosecutor’s office to release Saleh from custody.
The kidnapping of the two Turks drew more condemnation from political and religious leaders.
“The style of the tit-for-tat kidnappings and the seizure of personal freedoms have never been justified or accepted. Leniency in holding those who carry out kidnappings accountable will pave the way for the application of the law of the jungle,” Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt said in an article in the PSP’s Al-Anbaa online newspaper.
Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani called for the release of the two Turks as well as the nine Lebanese hostages in Syria. “The kidnapping of people, whoever they might be, and regardless of the kidnapping side, is a condemned act,” Qabbani said in a statement.
Sheikh Abdel-Amir Qabalan, deputy head of the Higher Shiite Council, condemned the kidnapping of innocent people and urged the state to act against lawbreakers. “We are against the tit-for-tat kidnappings, especially the kidnapping of innocent people whose only guilt is that they belong to this or that group,” he said.