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Lebanon gunmen hold Turkish pilots

Gunmen have ambushed a van carrying a Turkish Airlines crew in the Lebanese capital Beirut, kidnapping a pilot and a co-pilot in an attack that appears to be linked to the civil war in neighbouring 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..

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 that the pilots "will only be released when the Lebanese hostages in Syria return".

The war in 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". 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 on Friday. Authorities were investigating and the road where the kidnapping occurred has been closed off with several police checkpoints.

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 within hours. "We don't know who did this and for what purpose," Mr 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. A spokesman for Turkish Airlines Ali Genc identified the two pilots as Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca.

The Lebanese are deeply divided over Syria's civil war, with Shiites largely supporting the regime in Damascus and Sunnis backing 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 erupted in March 2011. The fighting has frequently spilled into Lebanon

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