Authorities in western Libya have released 105 prisoners loyal to renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, in a move towards reconciliation in a United Nations-backed peace process following years of fighting.
Libya’s new unity government took office earlier this month, replacing two rival administrations that had ruled eastern and western regions of the country.
After a decade of chaos since longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi was removed following a NATO-backed uprising that left multiple forces vying for power, the unity government has prioritised reconciliation efforts ahead of national elections scheduled for December.
The men were fighting for the 107th Brigade under the command of Haftar, who in April 2019 launched an offensive to seize Tripoli. The fighters had been captured near the western city of Zawiya that same month.
On Wednesday, they were released following a ceremony in Zawiya, 45 kilometres (28 miles) east of Tripoli. Abdallah al-Lafi, vice president of the country’s new presidential council, gave a speech in which he praised the liberation of the prisoners as “a concession in the interests of the nation” and called for further reconciliation and rebuilding.
After the ceremony at a sports ground in Zawiya, the prisoners were released and reunited with their families.
A mother, who wished to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera that two of her sons were among those released.
“I am so happy. May god bless our country with security and stability, and may he unite all Libyans and give us prosperity.”
Ali Al-Lafi, the Zawiya police chief, told Al Jazeera the release was agreed at a local level.
“This initiative was undertaken by the tribal and political leaders of Zawiya and will help reconciliation efforts,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s Malik Traina, reporting from Misrata, said the move to free prisoners was not part of an official prisoner swap, rather it is a gesture of goodwill.
“The development is a symbol of goodwill so that Libyans can turn the page and move towards bringing the country together after years of division, as we move towards coming elections,” he said.
Traina said that it was easy for the government to initiate the latest move as the prisoners in question surrendered peacefully and were not thought to be responsible for the killing of any civilians.
Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh’s unity government emerged from talks involving the United Nations. It is mandated to improve services, unify state institutions and oversee elections.
Coming after months of a ceasefire between the two main sides in the civil war, it appears to represent Libya’s best hope for many years of an eventual resolution after the decade of chaos.
However, several problems persist. On the streets, power is still held by an array of local armed groups that have vied for control of the country’s oil wealth.
The new unity government is also tasked to unify state institutions before the coming elections.
Foreign powers that backed each side during the war have not pulled out fighters or arms yet, although the unity government has demanded the “immediate” withdrawal of all foreign mercenaries. There are thought to be about 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries on Libya’s territory, posing a threat to the UN-backed transition.