BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese authorities have arrested three people in connection with last week’s kidnapping of two Turkish Airlines pilots in Beirut, the state news agency said Saturday.
Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces referred the three suspects in custody to court, the National News Agency reported. It did not identify the three nor say when or where they were arrested.
Gunmen snatched the two Turkish pilots last Friday from a van near Beirut’s international airport. Turkey quickly issued a travel warning urging its citizens to avoid unnecessary travel to Lebanon and those already there to leave.
The kidnapping appears to be linked to the civil war in neighboring Syria. A previously unknown group claimed responsibility for the abductions, and linked the fate of the two Turkish pilots to that of nine 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 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 helped broker the release of two of the 11 Lebanese Shiite hostages last year, but the other nine are still in captivity.
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, but no hostages have been released.
The rebels are reportedly demanding the release of a total of 127 female detainees in Syrian jails before releasing any of the nine Lebanese Shiites.