BEIRUT (AP) — Gunmen ambushed a van carrying a Turkish Airlines crew in the Lebanese capital Friday, kidnapping a pilot and a co-pilot in an attack that appeared to be linked to the civil war in neighboring Syria.
The six assailants stopped the vehicle on an old airport road in Beirut, pulling the two Turkish nationals from the van and letting the rest of the crew go, Lebanese security officials said. The vehicle was traveling from Rafik Hariri International Airport to a Beirut hotel when the ambush took place, according to the officials, who spoke on condition anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Lebanon's state news agency said a group called Zuwaar al-Imam Rida claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. The previously unknown group said in a statement that the pilots "will only be released when the Lebanese hostages in Syria return," according to the National News Agency. The veracity of the claim could not be immediately verified.
The civil war in Syria has deeply divided the Lebanese. Syrian rebels, who are predominantly Sunni Muslim and 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 denied that there was any link between Friday's kidnapping and the captives in Syria. However, Sheik Abbas Zougheib of the Higher Shiite Councils said that if the kidnapping "is to settle the question of Lebanese abducted in Syria, we support it," according to Lebanon's state news agency.
In Ankara, the Turkish Foreign Ministry urged its citizens in Lebanon to be vigilant and to return to Turkey, if possible. It also warned against unnecessary travel to the country.
"In the light of the current situation, unless there is a vital necessity, it would be appropriate for citizens to refrain from traveling to Lebanon," the ministry said in a statement.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Twitter that the kidnappings had overshadowed the blessing of the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan. He said he had been in touch with the Lebanese prime minister and other officials about the abductions.
"As we always do, we are making every effort to restore the pilots to their families," he said.
Lebanese authorities have closed off the road where the ambush took place and have set up several police checkpoints, Lebanese security officials said. The Turkish Airlines crew arrived in Beirut from Istanbul early Friday, they said.
Lebanon's state news agency 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.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Levent Gumrukcu said Ankara did not know who was behind the kidnapping or their motive but that the four crew members who were not abducted were still in Beirut and expected to return to Turkey later Friday.
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.
Turkish Airlines spokesman Ali Genc identified the two pilots as Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca.
Shiites in Lebanon largely support the regime in Damascus, and Sunnis back the rebels. Both Sunni militants and fighters from Lebanon's dominant Shiite Hezbollah group have been fighting on opposite sides in the conflict.
The conflict in Syria that has claimed more than 100,000 lives since it began in March 2011. The fighting frequently has spilled into Lebanon.
Associated Press writers Desmond Butler in Istanbul and Ryan Lucas in Beirut contributed to this report.