Eighteen fishermen including eight Sicilians who were held in Libya for more than three months have been freed, Italy's prime minister and foreign minister said Thursday after visiting Benghazi to secure their release.
The plight of the eight Italians, six Tunisians, two Indonesians and two Senegalese gripped 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, alongside a picture of the men held for 108 days for allegedly fishing in Libyan territorial waters.
"In a few hours they will be able to hug their families and loved ones."
Di Maio said he and premier Giuseppe Conte had met with Haftar, who is waging war against the UN-recognised government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in the west as part of the North African country's conflict.
"The government continues to firmly support the stabilisation process in Libya. This is what Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and I reiterated to Haftar today during our talks in Benghazi," he said.
Conte tweeted a picture of the men with the comment "Have a good trip home".
A spokesman for Haftar's forces in Libya told AFP the men had been found in Libyan territorial waters and released following an investigation by the military prosecutor.
"For humanitarian reasons.. and given that the legal issues were resolved, General Khalifa Haftar... 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 with their families and are on board their two fishing boats, Antartide and Medinea," which had also been seized, local mayor Salvatore Quinci said.
He reported one of the fishermen telling his wife: "I have to leave you now and end the phone call, because I have to start the boat's engine."
"I'm so happy. I have no words to express the joy I feel and the happiness of thinking that he will soon be able to hug him again," the daughter of one of the men, who was not named, told the ANSA news agency.
The fishermen of Mazara del Vallo have for generations relied on Mediterranean waters north of Libya for their livelihoods but see their futures increasingly threatened.
As fish stocks have dwindled and trawler capabilities improved, their boats have sailed further from port and into waters over which Libya has claimed sovereignty.
The area is a fishing ground for the gambero rosso, or red prawn, a crustacean prized by gourmet chefs.
It has seen numerous clashes, intensifying in 2005 when Libya's then leader Moamer Kadhafi proclaimed that its protected fishing zone extended 74 nautical miles from the coast, in defiance of international standards.
Italian media had reported that Haftar wanted to trade the jailed fishermen for four Libyans arrested in 2015 in Italy and sentenced to 30 years in prison for human trafficking.
Di Maio insisted Italy will not be blackmailed.