By Dominic Evans
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Gunmen abducted two Turkish Airlines pilots in Beirut on Friday, forcing them from an airport bus in the early hours of the morning and prompting Turkey to urge its citizens to leave Lebanon.
Lebanese media said that a group claimed responsibility for the abduction in the name of nine Lebanese Shi'ite Muslims kidnapped near the Turkish-Syrian border last year, saying the two Turks would be freed if the Lebanese captives were released.
It was not immediately possible to verify the reported claim. Turkey's foreign ministry and the airline said they were in close contact with Lebanese authorities but had no immediate information on the condition of the two airline staff.
"We announce that the Turkish captain Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca are our guests until our brothers ... who were abducted in Azaz are released," said a statement from the group, according to a Lebanese television station and the National News Agency.
It said it held Turkey responsible for the fate of the Lebanese Shi'ites, who were among a group of 11 men abducted in May last year by Syrian Sunni Muslim rebels in the northern town of Azaz, close to Turkey.
They were seized on their return from a pilgrimage to Shi'ite religious sites in Iran, their families said. Two were later released.
Turkey warned it citizens against non-essential travel to Lebanon and called on those already in the country to return home. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he had spoken with the Lebanese prime minister about the abductions.
"As in previous such cases we are making every effort to reunite the pilots with their families safely," Davutoglu said on his Twitter account.
Friday's incident came days after a senior Lebanese political source said that authorities had information suggesting that families of the Lebanese detainees, or their supporters, were planning to take Turkish hostages.
Lebanese media quoted a spokesman for the families as saying they had no link to the Beirut abductions. But shortly after the claim of responsibility was issued, celebratory fireworks were set off in the Bir al-Abed district of southern Beirut where some of the relatives live.
GUNMEN AMBUSH BUS
A Turkish diplomat said the two Turks were seized early on Friday when gunmen stopped a vehicle carrying the Turkish Airlines crew to their hotel in the Lebanese capital.
Their plane, carrying 144 passengers from Istanbul, had arrived at 3.30 a.m., according to sources at Beirut's Rafik Hariri airport.
Security sources said four or five gunmen were involved in the abduction. They forced all the passengers off the bus and let all but the pilot and his assistant go free.
Turkey, hoping to cement its role as a power in the Middle East, has supported rebels battling to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and may have influence over fighters who captured the Lebanese Shi'ites close to the Turkish border.
"We immediately contacted the Lebanese authorities at every level ... and they are conducting a very comprehensive investigation," Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Levent Gumrukcu said.
The rest of the crew were safe in a Beirut hotel and would be returning to Turkey shortly, he said.
Two Turkish nationals were briefly abducted in Lebanon in August and September last year, following the capture of the Lebanese Shi'ites in Aleppo province in Syria and the separate detention of a Lebanese national in Damascus by rebels.
(Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall and Asli Kandemir in Istanbul; editing by Andrew Roche)