The kidnapping of two Turkish Airlines staff members in Lebanon appears to be linked to the abduction of nine Lebanese nationals who were abducted last year. Turkey has warned its citizens against traveling to Lebanon.
Lebanon's state National News Agency and other local media reported on Friday that a group calling itself Zuwaar al-Imam Rida had claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a Turkish Airlines pilot and co-pilot several hours earlier.
"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," a statement from the group quoted by the National News Agency said. It also said the group held the Turkish government responsible for last year's abductions.
The claim could not immediately be verified.
However, even before the statement was reported, there had been speculation that Friday morning's kidnapping could be linked to the abductions of 11 Lebanese Shiite men in Azaz, a Syrian town near the border with Turkey last May. Two were released shortly afterwards. The families of the nine who remain missing said they were on their way home after a pilgrimage to Shiite holy sites in Iran when they were taken. They have been calling on the Turkish government, which supports the rebel side in the Syrian conflict, to put pressure on the rebels to release their loved ones.
A spokesperson for the families told Germany's DPA news agency that they had nothing to do with Friday's kidnapping.
"We have no link with such group but we should stress our hostages have been in custody for more than a year and the Turkish government did not move to speed up the release," Hayat Awali said.
No news on condition of pilot, co-pilot
The Turkish foreign ministry said it had no information on the condition of the two airline staff, who were abducted from a vehicle as it was travelling between Beirut's international airport and the hotel where they were to be staying.
"As in previous such cases we are making every effort to reunite the pilots with their families safely," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said via his Twitter account.
Earlier though, a foreign ministry spokesman said several other members of the Turkish Airlines crew, who were also in the vehicle at the time the two men were kidnapped, were safe at a Beirut hotel and would be flown home as soon as possible.
The Lebanese authorities stepped up security shortly after the kidnapping, deploying soldiers along the part of the road to the airport, where it occurred.
The foreign ministry has also advised Turkish citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Lebanon and those who are already in the country to leave.
pfd/dr (Reuters, dpa, AP)