Lebanon detains man in Turkish pilots’ abduction
BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese police and army troops deployed in force outside Turkish businesses as well as diplomatic and cultural institutions in Beirut on Monday, hours after security forces detained a man in connection with the kidnapping last week of two Turkish pilots in the Lebanese capital, officials said.
Heavily armed policemen and soldiers took up posts outside the Turkish Embassy, the building housing Turkey’s state news agency and television, as well as the Turkish cultural and commercial centers in downtown Beirut. Security officials said work at the commercial center has been suspended until further notice.
Late Sunday, authorities took into custody a Lebanese man, identified as Mohammed Saleh, after he allegedly contacted the pilots’ kidnappers by telephone, the officials said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Gunmen snatched the two Turkish Airlines pilots from a van near Beirut’s international airport on Friday.
The kidnapping prompted Turkey to issue a travel warning urging its citizens to avoid unnecessary travel to Lebanon and those already there to leave. Since the abduction, Turkish tourists in Lebanon have been moving in groups with the protection of Lebanese police, officials said.
The kidnapping appears to be linked to the civil war in neighboring Syria. A previously unknown group claimed responsibility for the abductions, and linked their fate to that of Lebanese Shiites who have been held by Syrian rebels for more than a year.
A rebel faction in northern Syria took hostage 11 Lebanese Shiites who had been on a bus tour of religious sites in the area. The commander of the brigade, Ammar al-Dadikhli, told The Associated Press last September that he was holding them captive to try to force Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah to stop supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Syria’s rebels are predominantly Sunnis, and are widely supported by Lebanon’s own Sunni community. Lebanon’s Shiite community strongly backs the Syrian regime.
Turkey help broker the release of two of the 11 hostages last year.
A representative for the Lebanese Shiites’ families strongly condemned Saleh’s detention and warned the families will escalate their moves on the ground if he is not set free. Sheik Abbas Zougheib of the Supreme Shiite Islamic Council told Lebanon’s state news agency that security forces took Saleh into custody while he was on a trip with his family.
Lebanese officials have been shuttling between Syria and Turkey to try to mediate the Shiite hostages’ release. In January, rebels freed 48 Iranians in exchange for more than 2,000 prisoners held by Syrian authorities.
The stage seemed to be set for a similar swap last month after the Syrian regime freed nearly two dozen female prisoners, complying with rebel demands, Lebanese officials said at the time. In return, rebels were expected to free several of the Lebanese Shiites. Three weeks later, all nine of the Lebanese hostages remain in captivity.
The rebels are reportedly demanding the release of a total of 127 female detainees in Syrian jails before releasing any of the Lebanese Shiite hostages.