Gunmen Kidnap 2 Turkish Airlines Pilots in Beirut

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Armed assailants in two vehicles intercepted a bus carrying Turkish Airlines personnel from the airport into Beirut early on Friday and kidnapped a pilot and a co-pilot, Lebanese media reported. The attack could signal a further spread into Lebanon of the civil war in neighboring Syria.

No group immediately took responsibility for the abduction, and there was no immediate word whether a ransom had been demanded. Analysts here noted, however, that Turkey was a close ally of antigovernment Sunni Muslim insurgents in Syria who have been holding several Lebanese Shiites hostage. It was not immediately clear whether the kidnapping was part of an effort to secure the release of the Lebanese hostages.

The attackers were traveling in two vehicles when they forced the bus to halt on a bridge on its way from Rafik Hariri International Airport to a hotel in Beirut. The kidnappers entered the bus and ordered the pilot and co-pilot to accompany them while leaving the rest of the Turkish crew on the bus.

The pilot had landed Turkish Airlines Flight 828 from Istanbul to Beirut with 144 passengers on board at 3:30 a.m., The Associated Press reported.

The driver of the bus told Lebanese investigators that he had no choice but to stop since he feared the gunmen would open fire, Lebanese media quoted security officials as saying. It was not immediately clear how many assailants carried out the kidnapping. Some reports spoke of six while others said eight.

In Turkey, The A.P. said, Levent Gumrukcu, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, confirmed the kidnapping and said the rest of the crew was expected to return home later on Friday. "We don't know who did this and for what purpose," he was quoted as saying.

The kidnapping could reflect the sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect backed by Shiite Muslim allies in Iran and Lebanon. Fighters from Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah group have joined with government forces in Syria to oppose the Sunni insurgents seeking Mr. Assad's overthrow. The Sunni rebels are also supported by many Western and Arab governments.

That division also plays out between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon, deepening tensions between them.

Hwaida Sadd reported from Beirut, and Alan Cowell from London.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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