The Libyan warlord General Khalifa Haftar is reportedly refusing to release 18 Italian fishermen until Italy frees four Libyan footballers convicted of human trafficking.
The incident dates back to 1 September, when two Sicilian fishing boats, named Antartide and Medinea, were approached by Libyan patrol boats that accused them of fishing in Libyan territorial waters and from there were transferred to Benghazi, the largest city in Cyrenaica, a region in eastern Libya controlled by Haftar.
Haftar has now proposed an exchange: the release of 18 Sicilian fishermen in exchange for the release of four Libyans and former footballers detained in Sicily and accused of human trafficking, but who according to families and relatives are innocent.
The four young Libyans were arrested in Sicily in 2015 and, after a long trial, were sentenced by the magistrates of Catania to 30 years in prison. They were accused of organising a crossing from Libya in which 49 migrants died.
According to the players’ family and friends, far from being human traffickers, the Libyans are refugees who fled the war to continue their careers as footballers in Germany.
After the rumours about the exchange proposed by Haftar, a number of the families of the athletes held protests in front of the Benghazi Naval Base, demanding the Italian fishermen were not released “until the Libyan players are released from Italy,” the Benghazi-based newspaper Address Libya reported.
Carmelo Zuccaro, the Catania prosecutor who was in charge of the investigation that led to the arrest of the four players, told the Guardian that ‘‘an exchange between Libyans and fishermen would be repugnant.’’
Toni Scilla, the president of the association of Sicilian shipowners and fishermen, Agripesca, called the demand ‘‘unacceptable blackmail”. “If we don’t have answers shortly, we are ready to block our fishing vessels and go on strike,’’ Scilla said.
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