Libyan renegade General Khalifa Haftar has reportedly refused to release 18 Italian fishermen until Italy frees four Libyan footballers convicted of human trafficking.
According to local reports, Haftar asked the Italian government to agree to a prisoner exchange.
Last week, the Italian National Federation of Fishing Enterprises (Federpesca) said it had signed a five-year agreement with the Libyan Military Investment Authority – owned by Haftar – to allow Italian fishing vessels in the eastern waters of Libya.
According to data from the Distretto della Pesca de Sicile, a cooperative that brings together players in the fishing sector, over the past 25 years more than 50 boats have been seized, two confiscated, around 30 fishermen arrested and dozens of people injured.
The latest incident dates back to 1 September, when two Sicilian fishing boats, named Antartide and Medinea, were approached by Libyan patrol boats who accused them of fishing in Libyan territorial waters. They were transferred to Benghazi, eastern Libya, which is under Haftar's control.
According to reports, such situations occur often and usually end after weeks of negotiations.
This time, however, according to media reports, Haftar offered an exchange: the release of 18 Sicilian fishermen in exchange for the release of four former Libyans footballers detained in Sicily and accused of human trafficking, but who – according to their families and relatives – are innocent.
The four young Libyans were arrested in Sicily in 2015 and, after a long trial, were sentenced to 30 years in prison. They were accused of organising a trip from Libya in which 49 migrants died. However, according to their families and friends, they are refugees themselves who fled the war to pursue their footballing careers in Germany.