June 19, 2015 / 8:13 AM / in 2 years

Tunisia says consular staff kidnapped in Libya returned home

TUNIS (Reuters) - Ten members of Tunisia’s diplomatic staff kidnapped in Libya a week ago have been freed and returned to Tunis on Friday, and the Tunisian government has shut down its consular operations in Tripoli.

Tunisian diplomatic staff who were kidnapped in Libya a week ago, arrive at the airport in Tunis, Tunisia June 19, 2015. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

No group has claimed responsibility for the abduction. Armed groups in Libya have repeatedly kidnapped diplomats and foreign nationals to pressure their governments to free Libyan militants held in jails overseas.

Libya’s two rival governments - one internationally recognized in the east and the other self-declared in Tripoli - are fighting for control, four years after the fall of strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

Tunisia had been one of the few countries to keep a diplomatic presence in Tripoli. Most Western governments and companies pulled out last summer when the armed faction called Libya Dawn took over the capital and set up its own government.

Three of the 10 Tunisians had been freed earlier in the week after talks between the captors and the Tripoli government. Seven more freed hostages arrived in Tunis on Friday, to be greeted by government officials and family.

“All 23 staff from the consulate have now returned and we have decided to close the consulate in Tripoli because they cannot guarantee our security. These armed militias are not under state control,” Foreign Minister Taieb Bakouch told reporters.

“Our advice to all Tunisians is leave Libya and return immediately. We cannot again be subject to any blackmail.”

He gave no details about negotiations to free the staff, who were kidnapped from the consulate. Their release came after a Tunisian court ruled on Thursday that Libyan Walid Kalib could be extradited.

Kalib is a member of the Libya Dawn, a loose coalition of former anti-Gaddafi rebels and Islamist-leaning fighters, who was arrested in Tunisia last month. Gunmen had stormed the consulate in Tripoli and kidnapped the Tunisians after the Tunisian court, in a previous ruling, refused to release him.

Both governments are allied with two loose coalitions of armed groups, former rebel brigades and fighters, both claiming the mantle of the country’s true army. But those factions are themselves fractured and their loyalties more often to regional, tribal or local commanders.

In the security vacuum, Islamist militants allied to the Islamic State and other hard-line groups have also gained a foothold in Libya to train, seek refuge and attack neighboring countries.

United Nations negotiators are trying to broker a peace agreement between the two factions and form a unity government. Western powers fear their standoff is creating a failed state just across the Mediterranean sea from mainland Europe.

Reporting by Tarek Amara; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Larry King

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