By Houda Mzioudet.
Tripoli, 30 June 2014:
Two Tunisian embassy staff who were kidnapped by suspected militants in Libya in the spring, Mohamed . . .[restrict]Ben Cheikh and Aroussi Gontassi, flew back home to Tunisia last night. They were welcomed at a military airbase in Tunis by the country’s President Moncef Marzouki, the head of its Constituent Assembly, Mustafa Ben Jaafar, Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, Foreign Minister Mongi Hamdi, other Tunisian officials as well as their families and friends.
The two were released after negotiations with abductors, although it is unclear who carried them out or what deal was cut. Speaking yesterday, Foreign Minister Hamdi insisted Tunisia had not negotiated with the kidnappers while Tunisian President thanked the Libyan authorities for their role in the release of the two.
Sources in the Tunisian Interior Ministry meanwhile have insisted that no Libyan “terrorists” have been released from Tunisian prisons as part of any deal.
There had been earlier reports that Libyans involved in the kidnapping wanted two compatriots who were jailed on terrorist charges in Tunisia freed.
However, the extent of Libyan involvement in the abductions – of Ben Cheikh on 21 March in Ain Zara, east of Tripoli and Gontassi on 17 April in the capital – is also unclear. A YouTube video, dated 19 April 2014, of a distressed Ben Cheikh, was released by the Tunisian militant Islamic group Shabab Al-Tawhid. Formally called Ansar Al-Sharia, it is nonetheless closely linked to the Libyan organization of the same name.
Tunisian Foreign Ministry officials refuse to give details of any deal to secure the pair’s freedom. Ridha Sfar, assistant minister in charge of national security, told Tunisian radio station Mosaique FM that Tunisia has information about the kidnappers but said he could not divulge any details until after an investigation into the affair.
Tunisian embassy officials have similarly declined to comment on the release citing ”the sensitivity of the issue at this specific time”.
Last week, a source at the Tunisian foreign ministry told this paper that the diplomats had been freed several days beforehand but would not give any further information.
Mohamed Ben Cheikh and Aroussi Gontassi told the press on their arrival in Tunisia that they had been well treated by their kidnappers but Gontassi said that the conditions had been “very bad”. [/restrict]