BEIRUT (AP) — Gunmen intercepted a van carrying Turkish Airlines employees from Beirut's international airport to a hotel in the Lebanese capital Friday, kidnapping two pilots but leaving the four other crew members behind, officials said.
The abductions appeared linked to neighboring Syria's civil war, a conflict that has sparked repeated bouts of fighting in Lebanon between sectarian communities as well as a spate of tit-for-tat kidnappings over the past two years. Friday's attack prompted Turkey to issue a travel warning urging its citizens to avoid unnecessary travel to Lebanon and those already there to leave.
The Turkish Airlines crew, which arrived on a flight from Istanbul early Friday, was in a van along an old airport road in Beirut when two vehicles forced it to pull over, Lebanese security officials said. Six gunmen pulled the pilot and co-pilot from the vehicle, but let the four other crew members go, the officials said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Turkish Airlines spokesman Ali Genc identified the two pilots as Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca.
Lebanon's state news agency reported that the driver of the van was questioned and that eight gunmen were involved in the abduction. The difference in the number of the attackers in the report and the Lebanese officials' account could not immediately be explained.
The state news agency said a group called Zuwaar al-Imam Rida claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. The group, which was previously unknown, said in a statement that the pilots "will only be released when the Lebanese hostages in Syria return," the agency said. The veracity of the claim could not be immediately verified.
In May 2012, a rebel faction in northern Syria took hostage 11 Lebanese Shiites who had been on a bus tour of religious sites in the area. The commander of the brigade, Ammar al-Dadikhli, told The Associated Press last September that he was holding them captive to try to force Lebanon's Shiite militant group Hezbollah to stop supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. Syria's rebels are predominantly Sunnis, and are widely supported by Lebanon's own Sunni community.
Two hostages were later released with Turkey's assistance.
The hostage-taking set off a series of revenge kidnappings in the months that followed by Shiite clansmen inside Lebanon, with two Turks and some 20 Syrians being snatched by gunmen. All have since been freed. Hezbollah, meanwhile, remains a staunch supporter of the Syrian government, and its fighters have played a critical role in the regime's recent battlefield victories.
A representative for the Lebanese hostages' families denied that there was any link between Friday's kidnapping and the captives in Syria. However, Sheik Abbas Zougheib of the Higher Shiite Councils said that if the kidnapping "is to settle the question of Lebanese abducted in Syria, we support it," according to Lebanon's state news agency.
Lebanese officials have been shuttling between Syria and Turkey to try to mediate the Shiite hostages' release. In January, rebels freed 48 Iranians in exchange for more than 2,000 prisoners held by Syrian authorities.
The stage seemed to be set for a similar swap last month after the Syrian regime freed several female prisoners, complying with rebel demands, Lebanese officials said at the time. In return, rebels were expected to free several of the Lebanese Shiites. Three weeks later, all nine of the Lebanese hostages remain in captivity.
Turkey has become a frequent target of criticism from the relatives of the remaining hostages, in part because the Syrian rebels operate near the Turkish border. Ankara is a fierce critic of the Assad regime, and has offered both covert and open support to the rebels trying to overthrow him.
Following Friday's kidnapping, the Turkish Foreign Ministry urged its citizens in Lebanon to be vigilant and to return to Turkey if possible. It also warned against unnecessary travel to the country.
"In the light of the current situation, unless there is a vital necessity, it would be appropriate for citizens to refrain from traveling to Lebanon," the ministry said in a statement.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Twitter that the kidnappings had overshadowed the blessing of the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan. He said he had been in touch with the Lebanese prime minister and other officials about the abductions.
"As we always do, we are making every effort to restore the pilots to their families," he said.
A spokesman for Turkey's Foreign Ministry, Levent Gumrukcu, said Ankara did not know who was behind the kidnapping or their motive.
Lebanon's state news agency said the four crew members who were not abducted, three women and one man, left Beirut on a Turkish Airlines flight Friday evening.
Associated Press writers Desmond Butler in Istanbul and Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this report.