The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon UNIFIL revealed on Friday that the Turkish authorities announced the withdrawal of their Engineering Construction Unit from South Lebanon by September 3, National News Agency NNA reported on Friday
“The withdrawal will be completed by the first week of September while Turkish troops will continue to serve in the UNIFIL Maritime Task Force,” UNIFIL Spokesperson Andrea Tenenti said.
“The Turkish Engineering Construction Unit started serving with the UNIFIL in 2006 and has since provided great support to the troops for its experience and expertise,” he noted.
Tenenti added that 58 Turkish peacekeepers are currently serving with the UNIFIL.
“What matters is that the UNIFIL is capable of maintaining its power on ground to efficiently complete its mission.” He stressed
Turkey’s parliament recently renewed for one year its troops’ UNIFIL mandate, which was set to expire in September.
But the kidnapping of two Turkish pilots by a group linked to the relatives of the hostages may have accelerated the move by Turkey to pull its engineering unit from UNIFIL.
Lebanon’s National News Agency said on Friday that the previously unknown group “Visitors ( Zouwar) of Imam al-Rida ” which claimed responsibility for kidnapping the two Turkish pilots issued a statement saying that the (Turkish ) pilots “will only be released when the Lebanese hostages in Syria return to Lebanon.
Early on Friday, gunmen stopped a bus boarded it and kidnapped a pilot and a co-pilot working for Turkish Airlines on Beirut’s airport road, Lebanon’s caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told reporters . They were riding the bus from Rafic Hariri International Airport to their hotel when the assailants in two vehicles stopped it.
Charbel said that very little is known about the “Visitors ( Zouwar) of Imam al-Rida ” group . But according to reports the group is named after the shiite Imam Alī ibn Musa al-Riḍā.
11 Shiite pilgrims were kidnapped in Syria in May 2012 on their way from Iran to Lebanon. Turkey was involved in trying to help the Lebanese government in its negotiation to free the pilgrims from the Syrian rebels who kidnapped them in an Aleppo province. Two have since been released.
Turkey which had nothing to do with the kidnapping , was accused by the relatives of not doing enough to free the pilgrims and for this reason they arranged during the past several months several rallies, sit-ins and protests against Turkish Airlines , the Turkish embassy in Beirut and the UNIFIL contingent in South Lebanon to pressure the Turkish government to do more.
In what was described by analysts as a major blow to Lebanon’s tourism industry which has been suffering ever since the uprising in Syria erupted nearly two and a half years ago, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry issued a travel advisory on Friday in which it called on Turkish citizens to avoid traveling to Lebanon unless it is absolutely necessary .
“We advise Turks present in Lebanon to return to Turkey if they are able to.” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said
“Given the current situation it is vital that our citizens avoid all travel to Lebanon,” the Foreign Ministry also said in a statement posted on its website
“We suggest that citizens who are still in Lebanon return to Turkey if they can, or if they have to remain, to take all necessary measures to ensure their personal safety and be vigilant,” the statement added.
Photo: Families of the nine Lebanese Shiite hostages held by Syrian rebels in the Aleppo district of Azaz protest against the Turkish UNIFIL forces in south Lebanon. They threatened unspecified action against Turkish interests in Lebanon if the hostages are not released.