Fishermen held in Libya released

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A group of 18 seized by Libyan patrol boats in September while fishing in the Mediterranean were freed by authorities in eastern Libya, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said.

The sailors, including Italian and Tunisian nationals, were accused by local authorities of operating in Libya territorial waters. Italy disputed this.

“Our sailors are free,” Di Maio said in a post on Facebook 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 became 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 made for the release.

Italian officials said in October Haftar demanded the release of four Libyans arrested in Sicily in 2015 and subsequently sentenced to up to 30 years in jail for allegedly organising 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 never recognised the revised boundary.

Italy publicly backs the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and has difficult relations with Haftar. But it seeks to work with both administrations to slow the flow of illegal migrants to Italy.