Turkey plans to pull its troops from UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, according to Turkish and UN sources.
The announcement came a day after two Turkish Airlines pilots were kidnapped by unknown attackers. The pilots were seized early Friday on a road leading out of Beirut airport, in an apparent bid to secure the release of Lebanese pilgrims held in Syria. A previously unknown group calling itself Zuwwar Imam Ali al-Rida claimed responsibility for the abduction, saying it was carried out to secure the release of nine Lebanese kidnapped in Syria last year.
The abduction drew condemnation from Turkey which urged its citizens to leave Lebanon amid mounting fears that the country is being dragged further into the Syrian conflict.
However, the Turkish government and UN both deny the decision is linked to the kidnapping, claiming that the decision to withdraw Turkish forces was made long before.
"An approximately 250-person engineering construction force will not be actively involved in UNIFIL in the coming period," a Turkish diplomatic source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"On the 6th of August, we have been informed by the department of peacekeeping operations that the Turkish government decided to withdraw the Turkish engineering construction company," UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti told AFP.
The Turkish source confirmed that the pull-out decision was made in conjunction with UNIFIL's own needs.
"The mandate of our force was extended in early July. At that time, it was also decided that there would be some changes in the configuration of our force, but the decision on this was entirely made in line with UNIFIL's own needs and it has nothing to do with the latest incident," the source said.
Turkey will however maintain its presence in UNIFIL with the maritime task force.
"Our units at the maritime task force whose numbers periodically vary between 100 and 300 will remain in charge," according to the Turkish diplomatic source.
The UN spokesperson described the move as a regular process.
"It's up to countries to decide on contribution, but it's important to know that this is a constant process in all peacekeeping missions, when you see troops decreasing or other countries increasing," Tenenti said.
"What's important for the mission is that our operational capabilities are not changed, and they are maintained on the ground, so that the effectiveness of the mission will not change," he added.
"UNIFIL always has adequate preparations to ensure that the operations continue without any kind of interruption."
UNIFIL was established in 1978 in south Lebanon following Operation Litani, in which IDF forces invaded southern Lebanon in response to the massacre of 38 civilians - including 13 children - by terrorists based there. Its mission was extended and enlarged after the Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hizbullah in 2006, with a current 13,000-strong force sourced from several countries. Turkey is the first Muslim country to provide reinforcements for the mission, in a bid to keep the peace along the hostile border, although no UN mission sits on Israel's side of the border.
Despite UNIFIL's presence Lebanon and Israel remain technically in a state of war, though and uneasy quiet has been largely maintained since the end of the Second Lebanon War.