Lebanese Shiite group claims kidnapping of Turkish pilot, co-pilot

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A Lebanese Shiite militia ambushed a bus carrying a Turkish Airlines pilot and his assistant in Beirut as they left the airport early morning on Friday.

A kidnapping operation took place at 3:00 am targeting a bus carrying several members of a Turkish Airlines crew going from the airport to the hotel,” Lebanon’s Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told AFP.

“Gunmen kidnapped two passengers from the bus -- the pilot and co-pilot,” he added.

In Turkey, the kidnapped pilot was named as Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca.

Speaking to Turkish television, Ankara’s ambassador to Beirut, Inan Ozyildiz, said “the case is being followed closely” and that he was working with “Lebanese forces to free the two pilots.”

Lebanese media reported that a group named Zouar Imam Reza claimed responsibility for the abduction and offered their release in exchange for nine Lebanese Shi’ite Muslims kidnapped near the Turkish-Syrian border last year.

“We announce that the Turkish captain ...and his assistant are our guests until our brothers... who were abducted in Azaz are released,” the statement said, according to a Lebanese television station and the National News Agency.

The alleged group said it holds Turkish authorities 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, according to Reuters.

Al Arabiya could not verify the claims. 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, according to Reuters.

Turkey has called on its citizens to leave Lebanon. “Given the current situation it is vital that our citizens avoid all travel to Lebanon,” the foreign ministry in a statement posted on its website.

“We suggest that citizens who are still in Lebanon return to Turkey if they can, or if they have to remain, to take all measures to ensure their personal safety and be vigilant,” it added.

It said Ankara expected the Lebanese government to take “all necessary measures” to ensure the safety of Turkish citizens in the country.

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