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Egyptian diplomats seized in Libya freed in swap

Soldiers from the Libyan army man a checkpoint in the capital Tripoli on January 26, 2014
Soldiers from the Libyan army man a checkpoint in the capital Tripoli on January 26, 2014

Five Egyptian diplomats kidnapped in Tripoli following the arrest in Egypt of a former Libyan rebel commander were released Sunday as part of a swap, officials said.

The abduction of the five on Saturday and of another member of the Egyptian embassy's staff a day earlier came after Shaaban Hadeia, a prominent commander in the rebellion that ousted Moamer Kadhafi in 2011, was arrested in Alexandria.

The Egyptians' release was confirmed after Hadeia, head of the Operations Centre of Libya's Thuwar (revolutionaries), announced his release himself on television.

"The five diplomats and a further member of staff of the Egyptian embassy are free," Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Abderrazak al-Gridi told AFP.

Women talk with policemen on January 25, 2014 in front of the Egyptian embassy, where Egypt's cultural attache and three other embassy staff were seized by kidnappers in Tripoli, Libya
Women talk with policemen on January 25, 2014 in front of the Egyptian embassy, where Egypt's cultural attache and three other embassy staff were seized by kidnappers in Tripoli, Libya

"They are at home and they are safe. They were treated well and their health is good," Gridi said, without elaborating on the circumstances of their release.

A Libyan security official speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity said the kidnappers freed the six as part of a deal between Tripoli and Cairo.

The official said the kidnappers, who have not been identified, demanded the release of Hadeia, also known by his nom de guerre Abu Obeida.

The first batch of Egyptian hostages was freed on Sunday.

"The two other members of the embassy will be freed when Abu Obeida arrives in Libya," the security source had explained before the final releases.

The Operations Centre had posted on Facebook that there could be a "possible reaction from the thuwar."

But one of the group's leaders, Adel al-Ghariani, told AFP they were not involved in the kidnappings.

The presidency of the General National Congress, Libya's highest political authority, has ordered its mission in Cairo to demand an explanation for the ex-rebel leader's arrest.

Egypt's foreign ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty had confirmed Hadeia was detained in Egypt but did not say why.

"If Hadeia's involvement is not established, naturally we will release him," Abdelatty told AFP, adding that investigations were ongoing.

Unrest in south

Libyan Justice Minister Salah al-Mirghani speaks during a press conference following the kidnapping of five Egyptian diplomats on January 25, 2014 in Tripoli Libya
Libyan Justice Minister Salah al-Mirghani speaks during a press conference following the kidnapping of five Egyptian diplomats on January 25, 2014 in Tripoli Libya

The kidnappings in Tripoli occurred despite Libya's announcement that security around the embassy had been reinforced.

They also came as fighting in the south and west of the country claimed more than 150 lives, adding to the sense of chaos in Libya more than two years after Kadhafi's demise.

Foreigners have been targeted several times in recent weeks: two Italians were seized last week in east Libya and a South Korean trade representative was released by security forces on Wednesday, three days after being abducted in Tripoli.

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was himself briefly abducted by a militia last October.

Libya has struggled to integrate into the security forces rebel groups that helped topple Kadhafi.

Some militias have carved out their own fiefdoms, each with its own ideology and regional allegiances.

The situation is especially dire in eastern Libya, where radical Islamists have been accused of launching dozens of attacks on security forces and Western interests, mostly in the second city Benghazi.

Authorities are also facing unrest elsewhere in the country, and the toll from two weeks of clashes in the south and west rose on Saturday to 154 dead and 463 wounded, the health ministry said.

The ministry said the toll included those killed in ethnic clashes in the main southern city of Sebha and in Wershefana, west of Tripoli.

Security sources said they had launched an operation this week against "armed gangs," allegedly including Kadhafi supporters in Wershefana, seen as a bastion of loyalists to the former regime.

Earlier, the director of the hospital in Sebha had said 88 people had died and more than 130 had been wounded in the ethnic violence in the south.

The fighting erupted between members of the Toubou minority, a non-Arab ethnic group, and armed Arab tribesmen of the Awled Sleiman.

There has since been fighting between the Awled Sleiman and other Arab tribes that is reported to have involved Kadhafi supporters.

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