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Gunmen kidnap two pilots in Lebanon

Gunmen intercepted a van carrying Turkish Airlines employees from Beirut's international airport to a hotel in the Lebanese capital, kidnapping two pilots but leaving the four other crew members behind.

The abductions appeared linked to neighbouring Syria's civil war, a conflict that has sparked repeated bouts of fighting in Lebanon between sectarian communities as well as a spate of tit-for-tat kidnappings over the past two years.

The attack prompted Turkey to issue a travel warning urging its citizens to avoid unnecessary travel to Lebanon and those already there to leave.

The Turkish Airlines crew, which arrived on a flight from Istanbul early on Friday, was in a van on an old airport road in Beirut when two vehicles forced it to pull over, Lebanese security officials said. Six gunmen pulled the pilot and co-pilot from the vehicle, but let the four other crew members go, the officials said.

Turkish Airlines spokesman Ali Genc identified the two pilots as Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca.

Lebanon's state news agency reported the driver of the van was questioned and that eight gunmen were involved in the abduction.

The state news agency said a group called Zuwaar al-Imam Rida claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. The group, which was previously unknown, said in a statement that the pilots "will only be released when the Lebanese hostages in Syria return," the agency said.

In May 2012, 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. Two hostages were later released with Turkey's assistance.

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