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Turkey to withdraw bulk of peacekeepers in Lebanon
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Turkey will withdraw the bulk of its peacekeepers from the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon, the spokesperson for the U.N. force told The Daily Star Saturday, in a decision taken by Ankara prior to this weeks kidnapping of two Turkish Airlines pilots in Beirut.

[The withdrawal] will be around 280 troops and 58 will stay as part of the maritime task force, Andrea Tenenti said, adding that the majority of the troops to pull out are from the engineering force.

He also noted that the decision was taken by Ankara earlier in August, describing the move as a regular process.

"On 6 August UNIFIL [was] informed by the UNHQ Department of Peacekeeping Operations that the Turkish government has decided to withdraw the Turkish Engineering Construction Company of UNIFIL by the first week of September, UNIFIL said in a statement.

UNIFILs operational activities will not be hampered by the reduction, according to Tenenti, and the current troop numbers will maintain the effective operations of the peacekeeping forces mandate.

Asked whether the volatile security situation in the country could have played a role in Ankaras decision, Tenenti said: there have not been any changes in security levels [in south Lebanon].

The Turkish Engineering Construction Company joined UNIFIL in October 2006 and has since carried out reconstruction projects as well as construction of roads and prefabricated accommodation in the south.

It has also donated computers, generators and other material to schools and municipalities, as well as undertaken renovation of schools and medical check-ups for the people of south Lebanon, UNIFIL said.

As of June 19, UNIFIL consisted of 10,819 peacekeepers from 37 countries, including Turkey.

In recent months, the activities of the Turkish contingent of UNIFIL declined and its security boosted after the families of nine Lebanese hostages being held by rebels in Syria threatened to attack Turkish interests in the country if their relatives were not released.

On Friday, gunmen kidnapped two Turkish Airlines pilots who were en route to their Beirut hotel from Beiruts international airport.

A group calling itself Zuwwar al-Imam Ali al-Reda claimed responsibility for the abduction, demanding the release of the Lebanese in Syria who were snatched near Aleppo in May of last year.

Families of the Lebanese hostages in Syria claim Turkey, which supports the Syrian opposition, has leverage over the rebels and could help secure the release of their loved ones.

The families deny any role in the abduction of the two Turkish pilots.