ROME (Reuters) – A group of 18 sailors who were seized by Libyan patrol boats in September while fishing in the Mediterranean have been freed by authorities in eastern Libya, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said on Thursday.
The sailors, who include Italian and Tunisian nationals, were accused by local authorities of operating in Libya’s territorial waters. Italy disputed this.
“Our sailors are free,” Di Maio said in a post on Facebook shortly after he and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte flew to Benghazi for talks with military commander Khalifa Haftar, who holds sway in eastern Libya.
The prolonged imprisonment of the group had become a political embarrassment for Italy’s government, with critics accusing ministers of failing to stand up to Haftar.
It was not immediately clear what concessions, if any, Italy had made to win their release.
Italian officials said in October that Haftar had demanded the release of four Libyans who were arrested in Sicily in 2015 and subsequently sentenced to up to 30 years in jail for allegedly organizing a migrant crossing that resulted in multiple deaths.
The southern Mediterranean fishing grounds have been disputed since 2005, when Libya’s then ruler, Muammar Gaddafi, unilaterally extended Libyan territorial waters to 74 nautical miles offshore from 12. Haftar is trying to enforce this.
Rome has never recognized the revised boundary.
Libya has been without strong central rule since Gaddafi was toppled in 2011 and rival camps set up parallel administrations in the east and west since 2014.
Italy has publicly backed the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and has had difficult relations with Haftar. But it has sought to work with both administrations to try to slow the flow of illegal migrants to Italy.
Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Gavin Jones and Frances Kerry
Image: FILE PHOTO: Relatives of 18 fishermen detained in Libya and Marco Marrone the owner of one of the boats seized, are seen during a protest demanding the release of the sailors, in front of parliament, in Rome, Italy, October 14, 2020. Picture taken October 14, 2020. REUTERS/Yara Nardi/File Photo