Gunmen ambushed a van today carrying a Turkish Airlines crew in the Lebanese capital, kidnapping a pilot and a co-pilot in an attack that appeared linked to the ongoing civil war in neighboring Syria.
Six gunmen stopped the vehicle on an old airport road in Beirut, abducting the two Turkish nationals and letting the rest of the crew go, officials said.
The van was travelling between Rafik Hariri International Airport and a Beirut hotel when the ambush took place, said the Lebanese officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Lebanon's state news agency said a group called the Zuwaar al-Imam Rida claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. The group, which was previously unknown, said in a statement carried by the National News Agency that the pilots "will only be released when the Lebanese hostages in Syria return."
The civil war in neighboring Syria has deeply divided the Lebanese. The Syrian rebels, who are backed by Turkey, have been holding nine Lebanese Shiites hostage since last year. There have been other kidnappings on both sides since the war began.
A representative for the Lebanese hostages' families said that there was "no relationship between the kidnapping of Turkish pilots and case of Lebanese hostages in Syria," the NNA reported. However, Sheik Abbas Zougheib of the Higher Shiite Councils said if the abduction "is to settle the question of Lebanese abducted in Syria, we support it," according to the news service.
The Turkish crew had landed a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul early today morning, the Lebanese officials told The Associated Press. Authorities were investigating and the road where the kidnapping occurred has been closed off with several police checkpoints, the officials said.
The NNA reported earlier that the driver of the van was being questioned and that eight gunmen were involved in the abduction. The difference in the number of the attackers in the report and the Lebanese officials' account could not immediately be explained.
In Turkey, Foreign Ministry spokesman Levent Gumrukcu confirmed the kidnapping. He said the rest of the crew was still in Beirut but were leaving to return to Turkey today evening.
"We don't know who did this and for what purpose," Gumrukcu said. He said the Turkish government was in close contact with Lebanese officials over the abduction.
Turkey supports the Sunni Muslim rebels fighting to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.