Italy: 18 fishermen seized by Libya in fishing dispute freed

ROME (AP) — Eighteen Italian fisherman, who were seized in September by Libyan authorities in a fishing dispute have been freed, the Italian government announced Thursday.

Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said he and Premier Giuseppe Conte went to Benghazi to bring the Sicily-based fishermen back.

“Welcome home,” Conte wrote in a Facebook post with a photo of the 18 men.

Authorities loyal to Libya’s eastern military commander, Khalifa Hifter, seized their vessels in September and brought the crew to Benghazi, saying they were fishing in Libyan maritime waters.

Di Maio announced the release on Thursday.

“In a few hours they will be able to hug their families and loved ones again,” he wrote.

Di Maio noted that he and Conte had met with Hifter on Thursday, suggesting a negotiated settlement to the deal.

The oil-rich Arab country has been split west to east since it descended into chaos following the 2011 uprising that ousted and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Italy, Libya’s former colonial ruler, has been a staunch backer of the U.N.- recognized government in Tripoli, Hifter’s foe, but has also worked to negotiate a peace deal between them. Backed by France, Russia, Egypt and the UAE, Hifter had launched an offensive last year to capture Tripoli but after 14 months of fighting, his troops collapsed and were forced to retreat eastward.

In October, the warring sides agreed to a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, a deal that envisioned the departure of foreign forces and mercenaries from Libya within three months.

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