Italy PM arrives as Libya releases Sicilian fishermen

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Rome (AFP)

Eighteen fishermen, including eight Sicilians detained in Libya for more than three months, have been released, the Italian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister said Thursday after a visit to Benghazi to secure their release.

The fate of the eight Italians, six Tunisians, two Indonesians and two Senegalese has taken hold of Italy since they were seized on September 1 by the forces of Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, who controls Benghazi.

“Our fishermen are free,” Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio posted on Facebook, next to a photo of men detained for 108 days for fishing in Libyan territorial waters.

“In a few hours, they will be able to embrace their families and loved ones. ”

Di Maio said he and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had met with Haftar, who is waging war on the UN-recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in the west as part of the conflict in the African country. of the North.

“The government continues to strongly support the stabilization process in Libya. This is what Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and I reiterated to Haftar today during our talks in Benghazi, ”he declared.

Conte tweeted a photo of the men with the comment “Have a nice trip home.”

A spokesperson for Haftar’s forces in Libya told AFP the men were found in Libyan territorial waters and released following an investigation by the military prosecutor.

“For humanitarian reasons … and since the legal issues have been resolved, General Khalifa Haftar … has decided to release them today,” he said.

– So happy –

In the Italians’ hometown of Mazara del Vallo in Sicily, there were cheers, hugs and tears of joy among relatives and friends who gathered in the local council chamber to hear the news.

“The fishermen have already spoken to their families and are on board their two fishing boats, Antarctica and Medinea,” which had also been seized, said local mayor Salvatore Quinci.

He reported that one of the fishermen had told his wife, “I have to leave you now and end the phone call, because I have to start the engine of the boat. ”

“I am so happy. I have no words to express the joy I feel and the happiness to think that he will soon be able to hug him again, ”the daughter of one of the men told ANSA. has not been named. Press Agency.

The fishermen of Mazara del Vallo have relied for generations on the Mediterranean waters north of Libya for their livelihood, but see their future increasingly threatened.

As fish stocks shrank and trawler capacities improved, their boats sailed further out of the port and into waters over which Libya claimed sovereignty.

The region is a fishing ground for gambero rosso, or red shrimp, a crustacean prized by gourmet chefs.

It has seen numerous clashes, which escalated in 2005 when then Libyan leader Moamer Gadhafi proclaimed that his protected fishing area extended 74 nautical miles from the coast, in defiance of international standards.

Italian media reported that Haftar wanted to trade the imprisoned fishermen for four Libyans arrested in 2015 in Italy and sentenced to 30 years in prison for human trafficking.

Di Maio insisted that Italy would not be subjected to blackmail.

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