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Italian fishermen return home after being held in Libya for three months

Eighteen Italian fishermen have been released after being held prisoner in Libya for more than three months, ending a tense political standoff.

Italian fishermen return home after being held in Libya for three months
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
sovereignty.
 
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.
 
 
 

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ITALIAN POLITICS

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.

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