Fishing boats in the port at Mazara del Vallo, Sicily. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
The fishermen are returning home to their families following the ordeal, Italy's prime minister and foreign minister said on Thursday after visiting Benghazi to secure their release.
“Our fishermen are free,” Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio posted on Facebook, alongside a picture of the men, who were held for 108 days by militiawho accused them of fishing in Libyan territorial waters.
“In a few hours they will be able to hug their families and loved ones.”
Conte tweeted a picture of the men with the comment “Have a good trip home”.
In the Italians' hometown of Mazara del Vallo in Sicily, there were cheers, hugs and tears of joy among relatives and friends who gathered in the local council chamber to hear the news.
“The fishermen have already spoken with their families and are on board their two fishing boats, Antartide and Medinea,” which had also been seized,
local mayor Salvatore Quinci said.
He reported one of the fishermen telling his wife: “I have to leave you now and end the phone call, because I have to start the boat's engine.”
Relatives of the fishermen waiting for news in Mazara del Vallo, Sicily, on Thursday. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
The plight of the fishermen has gripped Italy since they were seized on September 1st by the forces of strongman Khalifa Haftar, who controls Benghazi, amid a long-running dispute over fishing grounds between Sicily and Libya.
Di Maio said he and Conte had met with Haftar, who is waging war against the UN-recognised government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in the west.
“The government continues to firmly support the stabilisation process in Libya,” he said.
The fishermen of Mazara del Vallo have for generations relied on Mediterranean waters north of Libya for their livelihoods but see their futures increasingly threatened.
Mazara del Vallo, part of the province of Trapani in Sicily, is less than 200 km from the Tunisian coast of North Africa.
A fisherman displays the prized red prawns in Mazara del Vallo, Sicily, on Thursday. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
The area is a prime fishing ground for the gambero rosso, or red prawn, a crustacean prized by gourmet chefs which can sell for up to 70 euros a kilo.
As fish stocks have dwindled and trawler capabilities improved, their boats have sailed further from port and into waters over which Libya has claimed
Seizues of Italian fishing boats became more frequent in 2005 when Libya's then leader Moamer Kadhafi proclaimed that he was extending its fishing zone from 12 to 74 nautical miles from the coast, in defiance of international standards.