Lebanese abductions raise concern as second Turk targeted

Aydin Tufan Tekin, a turk kidnapped by the Lebanese Meqdad clan, takes his iftar meal during an interview with two Turkish journalists at his captors' house in the suburbs of Beirut on Aug. 16, 2012. (Photo: AA)

August 17, 2012, Friday/ 16:13:00

A second Turkish man has reportedly been kidnapped in Lebanon, raising concerns in Turkey that more Turks in this country might be targeted as Syria's conflict appears to be spilling over to Lebanon.

The second man targeted was a truck driver, who has been kidnapped by unknown gunmen in Choueifat, a suburb southeast of Beirut, Anatolia news agency reported on Friday. The driver, who was driving the oil-loaded truck, was kidnapped along with a Syrian national who was traveling with the Turkish man, Anatolia said, citing witnesses. The driver was identified as Abdülbasit Arslan, according to Cihan news agency.

It was not clear whether the second kidnapping was linked to the kidnapping of a Turkish businessman in Beirut on Wednesday. Cihan reported that Lebanon's powerful Shiite clan Meqdad, which claimed responsibility for kidnapping the Turkish businessman, has said it had nothing to do with the latest abduction.

The Meqdad clan declared an end to its wave of hostage-taking on Thursday, saying it had enough hostages to press for the release of a kinsman held by rebels in Damascus.

Businessman Aydın Tufan Tekin was kidnapped near the airport shortly after arriving in Lebanon on Wednesday. He was kidnapped along with about 20 Syrians after a senior member of the clan was kidnapped in Damascus by the Syrian opposition forces. The Meqdad clan says it is seeking to put pressure on the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to release Hassan al-Meqdad, detained by the Free Syrian Army in Damascus earlier this week, by targeting both Syrians it says are part of the opposition force and citizens of Turkey, one of the opposition fighters' regional sponsors.

Asked to comment on Tekin's kidnapping, President Abdullah Gül told reporters that Turkey was working to secure the release of Tekin. “We are very saddened by the fact that our national has been kidnapped in Lebanon. Because he is the representative of a company that invests in Lebanon and indirectly contributes to the economic well-being of the country," he said. "There is no political dimension here."

Gül said Tekin's kidnapping was not linked to the abduction of 11 Lebanese pilgrims in Syria. The Lebanese Shiite pilgrims were abducted in Syria in May while returning from a pilgrimage in Iran. This week's abductions in Beirut began after reports that the pilgrims died in air strikes in Azaz in northern Syria.

"We are doing what we can to save the abducted Lebanese, but this is an issue that we are not directly involved in," said Gül.

Turkey issued a travel warning to Lebanon and confirmed that a second Turkish national was kidnapped in Lebanon. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, speaking in a joint news conference with his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, in Ankara on Friday, said there is no link between the violence in Syria and Turkish nationals or Lebanon.

He reiterated that Turkey is doing what it can diplomatically to secure the release of Turkish national and added that he expects Lebanese authorities to help to free the kidnapped citizen.

Captive man appeals to government for his release

On Friday, Anatolia reported that it was given access to Tekin, who said he was in good health and called on Turkish leaders including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Davutoğlu to contact the Syrian opposition groups so as to secure the release of Hassan al-Meqdad, so that he could also be freed.

Tekin said the Meqdad clan was taking good care of him. Explaining that he was abducted by tribe members as soon as he exited Beirut Rafik Hariri International Airport on Wednesday, Tekin said he was kidnapped in retaliation for Hassan Meqdad's abduction by the Free Syrian Army in Syria.

He added that he was optimistic that he would be released if Hassan Meqdad was freed.

Expressing the hope that the problem would be solved in a diplomatic way, Tekin requested Turkish authorities to contact the FSA concerning the release of Hassan Meqdad. “I am an ordinary man who is trying to make a living. But sometimes, you can find yourself in the middle of such political situations. The best way to solve the problem is [to remain in] close contact with the authorities in a diplomatic way. I have been seeking the assistance of the Turkish government,” said Tekin.

Tekin and the two Anatolia correspondents that interviewed him were allowed to speak in Turkish only for a brief period, during which the captive man sent a message to his family. The rest of the interview was in English so that the clan members present were able to follow it. He was having a fast-breaking (iftar) dinner together with seven other men when the Anatolia crew entered the room where the interview took place.

Anatolia said its reporters were asked to place black plastic bags on their head when they were being taken to where Tekin was kept but, when they refused, they were told that they could cover their face with shirts instead.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry has stated that intense efforts are under way to secure Tekin's release as safely as possible and that it was also in contact with Tekin's family. “Our ministry and the Beirut embassy are continuing intensive efforts to secure the safe release of our kidnapped citizen,” the ministry said in a statement released late on Wednesday.

A spokesman for the Meqdad clan has said Turkish nationals were targeted because of Turkey's support for the FSA. The Gulf countries, which also openly support the Syrian opposition, have ordered their nationals to leave after the wave of abductions.

"If Hassan [al-Meqdad] is killed, the first hostage we will kill is the Turk," Maher al-Meqdad told Reuters on Thursday. "Regarding Saudis, Qataris and Gulf nationals, they are not targets for the Meqdad clan," he said, speaking in an area of southern Beirut controlled by Hezbollah, the Iran-backed, Shiite Lebanese party and guerrilla group.

The kidnapping has evoked memories of Lebanon's civil war, reinforcing fears that the Syria conflict could trigger more instability in a much smaller neighbor where Damascus has had a major influence over politics and security for decades.

The clan said Hezbollah, a party closely allied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has nothing to do with the kidnappings. But analysts say it is unlikely that Hezbollah is not involved.

“Despite both Hezbollah and the family's claims rejecting any link between them, the fact is that the kidnappings took place in Dahiya, a Beirut neighborhood largely controlled by the Hezbollah,” said Ceren Kenar, a Beirut-based columnist of the Turkish Taraf daily. “Any action is not possible there without the permission of the Shiite movement. Even though there is no organic link between them, Hezbollah might act behind the scenes,” she told Today's Zaman this week.

"The snowball will grow," warned Hatem al-Meqdad, a senior member of the powerful Meqdad family.

Assad, whose Alawite minority is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, has long relied on support from Shiite Iran and its Hezbollah allies. He accuses the Sunni powers of the Gulf and Turkey of promoting the revolt against him, which grew out of Arab Spring demonstrations 18 months ago.

While his opponents, and the Western powers that sympathize with them, insist they want to avoid the kind of sectarian blood-letting seen in Iraq, rebels who mostly come from Syria's disadvantaged Sunni majority have seized Iranians and Lebanese there in recent weeks, saying they may be working for Assad.

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