ROME â€”Â The crew of two Italian fishing vessels detained in Libya have been freed after 108 days in captivity.Â
The men were seized in September by Libyan patrol boats loyal to military commander Khalifa Haftar, and accused of violating territorial waters.
The safe release of the crew â€”Â 8 Italians, 6 Tunisians, 2 Indonesians and 2 Senegalese â€”Â ends a political standoff over their fate and represents a diplomatic coup for Italyâ€™s center-left government.Â Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio flew to Benghazi on Thursday morning as the news of the release was announced.Â Â
Di Maio announced the news on Facebook, writing, â€œOur fishermen are free. In a few hours they can embrace their families and loved ones again.â€Â
Di Maio said that he and Conte had met with Haftar on Thursday, suggesting the release was related to Italyâ€™s position in relation to the Libyan civil war.Â Italy supports the U.N.-backed administration in Tripoli, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, rather than the Tobruk-based administration supported by General Haftar,Â but has been working to negotiate a peace deal between them.
The fishermen are leaving Libya in their boats, and wonâ€™t be home for several days.Â A huge party is planned in their home port of Mazara del Vallo.
A government official told POLITICO that the condition of the fishermen had been monitored remotely by the Italian authorities throughout their imprisonment.Â They were kept in a holding center, 20km from Benghazi, rather than a normal prison, and they remained together without other prisoners, he said. The Italians were assured that the crew members had medical care, as some suffer from diabetes and hypertension, and there were checks that their diet was adequate, he said. â€œWe were monitoring their food, they had fish, rice and of course pasta.â€
But Rosaria Giacalone, the wife of one of the men, said on Italian TV Rai 24 that herÂ husband had told her by phone that the men were feeling desperate. â€œThey couldnâ€™t take it any more,â€ she said.Â
Opposition politicians criticized Di Maio and Conte for seeking to take the credit for rescuing the men, saying the real work had been done by intelligence services.
Mariastella Gelmini, leader of center-right Forza Italia in the Chamber of Deputies, said it was â€œa media circus â€¦ to distract from the crisis in the government.â€Â
Francesco Lollobrigida, leader of the far right Brothers of Italy, said it was â€œan indecent show, after more than three months without any action, and will not make up for the lack of competence demonstrated by this affair.â€