Libya freed the jailed leaders of a group linked to al Qaeda who renounced militancy, after reformers pushed for their release despite resistance from hardliners.
The release is a milestone in Libya’s programme of reconciliation with militants who killed dozens of soldiers and police in the 1990s, and represents a fresh twist in a competition for influence inside Libya’s ruling elite.
Saif al-Islam, a son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and a leader of the reformist camp announced that the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) leaders were among 214 prisoners linked to militant groups who were set free yesterday.
“Today is a very important day in Libyan history because we are going to declare the day when we ended the problems between the Libyan people and they can all shake hands,” said Saif.
Alongside him were three LIFG leaders, wearing traditional Libyan dress and freshly released from prison: Abdelhakim Belhadj, the Emir, or commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and his deputies Sami Assaadi and Khaled Asherif.
Reconciliation with ex-militants has become a focus for rivalry between reformers and a conservative old guard. In an apparent rebuff to his son, Muammar Gaddafi said in January up to 300 militants should be kept in jail indefinitely.
Some analysts say that a confrontation between Libya and Switzerland which has also drawn in European countries and the United States suggests that the hardliners have been pushing back against the reform camp.
Saif told the news conference that once he achieved his ambition of releasing all the inmates linked to militant groups, the Abu Salim prison where over 1000 prisoners were shot in June 1996 would be opened to the public.
The killings at Abu Salim are seen by some in Libya as a symbol of past mistakes that should be brought out into the open, but the massacre is still a highly sensitive subject.
Saif, who was instrumental in negotiating Libya’s emergence from international isolation in the past decade, said some of the 214 prisoners had been kept in jail even after they were acquitted by the courts or finished their sentences.
That was a group singled out in a Human Rights Watch report last year on rights abuses in Libya. It said hundreds of these inmates were kept unlawfully in two prisons run by the Internal Security Agency.
A total of 705 prisoners linked to Islamist militants including the 214 freed on Tuesday have been released since the reconciliation programme began, Saif said.
He said all of the 409 who remained in prison would eventually be released, with 232 of them scheduled to go free in the near future. “The operation will continue down to the last person in prison,” he said.
Analysts say Saif’s drive to release radical Islamists is aimed at widening support at home among opposition groups, including Islamists who are the most powerful component of the informal opposition.
The LIFG, whose members included people who had spent time with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Sudan and Afghanistan, tried to topple Gaddafi in the 1990s.
Their rebellion was gradually crushed and hundreds of fighters were imprisoned.
From their cells, the group’s leaders last year released a 400-age book renouncing violence and urging young people to seek inspiration for peace from the Islamic holy book, the Koran.