Friday, August 09, 2013

Abduction of Turkish pilots linked to Shiite hostages in Syria

Turkish Airlines pilot Murat Akpinar (R) and his co-pilot Murat 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

Turkish Airlines pilot Murat Akpinar (R), kidnapped on August 9, 2013 in Beirut, is seen in an undated file picture obtained from the Turkish Ihlas news agency posing with a woman. 
(The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: Gunmen kidnapped early Friday two Turkish Airlines pilots headed to a Beirut hotel shortly after they arrived in the country, security sources told The Daily Star, in a move apparently linked to the lingering case of Lebanese hostages being held in Syria. 

Turkish Airlines pilot Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat 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, the sources, who spoke on condition, 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 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, saying he feared his 12-year-old son, who was in the vehicle at the time, could have been harmed.

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.”

According to local media, a group calling itself Zuwwar al-Imam Ali al-Reda, claimed responsibility for the abduction of the two Turks and demanded the release of nine Shiite pilgrims being held by Syrian rebels.

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 said in a statement carried by local media.

“The return of the visitors [the Lebanese hostages] will be met with the return of the pilots,” the statement said, holding Ankara directly responsible for the abduction of the Lebanese Shiites.

The group had previously threatened to target Turkish and Syrian nationals in Lebanon.

Turkish interests in Lebanon have been under threat over the case of the Lebanese hostages. Families of the kidnapped have held several protests outside the offices of Turkish Airlines in Beirut and the Turkish Embassy, arguing that Ankara bears responsibility for the abduction given its backing of the rebels.

The relatives denied Friday 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.

“Our steps are known 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 in Syria, 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.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu contacted Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri over the incident, Anadolu News Agency quoted diplomatic sources as saying.

Mikati and Berri expressed their grief, saying such an incident should not affect ties with Ankara, the state-run agency said.

Earlier in the day, Turkish Ambassador to Lebanon Inan Ozyildiz contacted Charbel seeking clarifications on the abduction, reported Lebanon’s National News Agency.

Charbel also informed President Michel Sleiman of the information security forces have been able to gather thus far the agency said.

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 security sources said the shuttle bus included other crew members of flight TK828 who were headed back to their hotel.

Radisson Hotel in Beirut would not comment when contacted by The Daily Star.

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