Magharebia (Washington DC)

1 July 2014

Tunisia: Kidnapped Tunisian Diplomats Released in Libya

Tunis — Two Tunisian diplomats kidnaped in Libya returned home early Monday (June 30th).

Mohamed Benchikh and Al-Aroussi Kontassi were freed by their captors on Sunday, the first day of Ramadan. They were then flown home by a military aircraft, landing at Aouina airport outside Tunis, where they were warmly received by their family members and an official delegation.

A Libyan Islamic extremist group abducted Benchikh, an embassy employee, on March 21st. On April 17th, diplomat Al-Aroussi Kontassi was also kidnapped.

"They treated us well; we have not been subjected to abuse," AFP quoted Kontassi as saying after his release. "Conditions of detention were just very bad, which does not reflect the goodness of the Libyan people, who remain our brothers."

On Sunday, Tunisian Foreign Minister Mongi Hamdi denied there was a prisoner swap. "We dealt with the issue along three axes, and the government proceeded with two principles: maintain the integrity of the abductees and stick to the pride of the state by not bargaining and bartering. Yet at the same time, we left the door open to all mediation," the foreign minister said.

The denial came as HakaekOnline alleged two Libyan terrorists imprisoned for a 2011 attack in Rouhia were released in exchange for the kidnapped diplomats.

"We put the full responsibility for the protection of our citizens on Libyan authorities," Hamdi said. "Efforts were made daily and continuously, and the issue required secrecy and reticence so we did not talk to the press and TV. However we knocked on all the doors."

As for the kidnappers, the minister said: "We do not know them and we did not have any contact with them; our contact was limited to official authorities in Libya and we do not want to see these actors."

"We refused any pressure and refused to surrender to anything imposed on us that is not in line with our sovereignty and our laws," President Moncef Marzouki said Sunday. "There are other commitments, which we will carry forward in the framework of the rule of Tunisia and its interests."

He added: "Tunisia cannot abandon its children. We spent nearly three months thinking of them and our hearts were with them at all levels. We moved and never considered the case marginal or representing just two employees in the Tunisian Embassy in Libya. We considered them to be citizens with full rights and every citizen is important and valuable."

"I thank our Libyan brothers who helped to solve this issue. Libyans are our brothers and our friends and not the minority that committed this crime," the Tunisian president said.

For his part, Alaya Alani, a researcher on Islamist groups, told Magharebia that he did not think there was a trade off with the kidnapping group. "Maybe there was just some reassurance," he added.

"Most important of all is that now Libya is heading to major shifts after the elections, which would not be in favour of Islamists. Haftar will implement his threats by defeating these extremist groups. Therefore it is not in the interest of these groups to keep Tunisians as an extra burden. To sum up, the regional situation does not serve them," Alani said.

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