Gunmen Abduct Turkish Pilot and Copilot in Beirut

A Turkish pilot and copilot were kidnapped in Beirut early Friday by gunmen who intercepted their van as they were heading to a hotel in the Lebanese capital.

The kidnap is believed to be linked to the abduction of nine Lebanese pilgrims in Syria, whose families have urged Turkey to use its influence to secure their release.

The Turkish Ambassador, Inan Ozyildiz, told LBCI TV that he is following up the case, hoping that Lebanese authorities would work for their release.

Pilot Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca were on their way from Rafik Hariri International Airport to a hotel in Beirut's Ain Mreisseh seafront when they were kidnapped at the Cocodi bridge around 3:00 am.

The abductors were riding a four-wheeler and a Kia.

The van, which had six crew members on board, belongs to Turkish Airlines and its driver is a man from Zoaiter family who was taken for questioning by police.

In the wake of the incident, Lebanese soldiers deployed in the area, with two armored personnel carriers stationed by the roadside where the kidnapping took place.

Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told Agence France Presse he had spoken with Turkey's ambassador and that an investigation was under way.

He also telephoned President Michel Suleiman to brief him about the probe.

On Friday afternoon, the state-run National News Agency revealed that a Turkish airplane landed at the Beirut airport and then flew around 122 passengers, among them the crew of the aircraft whose pilot and copilot were kidnapped back to Turkey.

Sheikh Abbas Zgheib, who has been tasked by the Higher Islamic Shiite Council to follow up the case of the abducted pilgrims in Syria, was quick to deny any involvement by their relatives in the kidnapping of the Turks.

But he said: “Had we known about it we would have encouraged it.”

“More than a year have passed on the kidnapping of the Lebanese and the Turks are manipulating the feelings of the Lebanese,” he added.

Spokeswoman for the families of the pilgrims Hayat Awali also stressed that they had no link to Friday's incident.

The families have in the past months held several protests near the Turkish Embassy and Turkish Airlines headquarters in Beirut. They accuse Ankara of procrastinating in the negotiation with the rebels, who have kidnapped the pilgrims, to secure their release.

In May 2012, 11 pilgrims were kidnapped in Syria's northern Aleppo province as they were making their way back to Lebanon by land from pilgrimage in Iran.

Two of them have since been released, while the rest remain held in Aleppo's town of Aazaz.

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