Four US military personnel have been freed after a brief detention by the Libyan government, the US Department of State said yesterday.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who hours earlier announced that the Americans had been detained, did not say why they were held.
“All four US military personnel being held in Libyan government custody have been released,” Psaki said in a brief statement just after midnight on Friday. “We are still trying to ascertain the facts of the incident.”
Psaki said the four “were operating in an area near Sabratha as part of security preparedness efforts when they were taken into custody.”
Sabratha, known for its Roman ruins, is located 65km west of the capital, Tripoli.
“We value our relationship with the new Libya,” Psaki said. “We have a strategic partnership based on shared interests and our strong support for Libya’s historic democratic transition.”
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that the four were released just two hours after the US State Department announced their detention.
The military staff were attached to the security team at the US embassy in Tripoli and may have been scouting escape routes for possible future use by diplomats, the New York Times reported, citing unnamed US officials.
The personnel were detained at a checkpoint and moved to the interior ministry, according to the Times.
Americans in Libya have been targeted more than once since 2011, when the regime of strongman Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown by local rebel groups backed by US and NATO air power.
In September last year four people, including the US ambassador to Libya, were killed in an attack on the US consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi by Islamist gunmen with alleged al-Qaeda ties.
In the middle of last month, the State Department revealed that since January it has been quietly offering a US$10 million reward to help track down the militants behind the attack.
And earlier this month a US teacher was gunned down during his morning jog in Benghazi in an attack blamed on Islamist extremists.
Libya’s new authorities have struggled to integrate the rebel groups that helped topple the Qaddafi regime into the regular armed forces. Militias have carved out their own fiefdoms, each with its own ideology and regional allegiances.
Last month, US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague met in London with Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and agreed to help Libya crack down on militia violence.
However, Libya and the US have also had disagreements: In early October, US commandos seized senior alleged al-Qaeda figure Abu Anas al-Libi — indicted for the twin 1998 bombings of US embassies in east Africa — on the streets of Tripoli.
Al-Libi’s capture embarrassed the Libyan government, which denounced it as “kidnapping” and claimed it had not been given advance notice of the seizure.