Red Cross ship reunites Libyan families

Hundreds stranded for months in Tripoli, plus captured rebels, return to Benghazi aboard Red Cross-chartered ship.

    Over 300 people have returned to Benghazi, the Libyan rebels' stronghold, aboard an ICRC-chartered ship [AFP]

    More than 300 people, including 66 captured rebel fighters released by the Libyan government, have arrived in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi by boat from Tripoli, the country's capital.

    The Ionis vessel, chartered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), docked in the eastern port city amid chaotic scenes on Friday afternoon after a 22-hour journey.

    Accompanied by the blaring din of ship horns, the assembled crowd on the quayside chanted anti-regime slogans while trying to find loved ones and associates.

    Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr reports from Benghazi

    "It is a joyful experience, with many people reunited with family members," said Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr.

    "These civilians have been cut off from their relatives for four months now, unable to cross frontlines because of the fighting," said Paul Castella, head of the ICRC delegation in Tripoli.

    "Most of the people we are transferring are Libyans who were working away from their hometowns or visiting relatives or friends when the conflict broke out. They are very eager to rejoin their families," he added.

    The rebel fighters, who had been detained by government forces, told harrowing stories of imprisonment.

    "They electrocuted us, they tortured us in every possible way," said Yousef al-Fetori. "They broke my ribs, hand and leg.''

    A spokesperson for the rebels' National Transitional Council said five prisoners had previously been sent back to Tripoli, but an ICRC spokesperson denied that there were any prisoners from Benghazi being swapped on board the Ionis.

    There was some apprehension among Benghazi residents, some of whom suspected that Gaddafi may have planted spies on the ship.

    That suspicion was countered by the ICRC. "The names of the people had been screened and sent to rebels for clearance," said Dibeh Fakhr, a spokeswoman.

    The Ionis is scheduled to return to Tripoli with about 110 people who have been stuck in Benghazi, and eventually make three rotations between the rival Libyan cities, the ICRC said.

    According to the United Nations, around 243,000 people have been displaced by the war and 650,000 more have left Libya.

    Neither side in the months-long conflict between rebels seeking to topple Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and pro-government forces has been able to gain an upper hand, despite NATO air support for the rebels.

    Rebels have rejected any peace deal that would leave Gaddafi in power, but a spokesman for the National Transitional Council hinted on Friday that rebels could be prepared to let Gaddafi stay in Libya.

    Mahmoud Shammam, the spokesman, told France's Le Figaro newspaper that indirect contact between the two sides had been established through intermediaries in France and South Africa.

    "We consider that he has to resign himself to leaving or accept retirement in a remote part of Libya. We have no objection to him retreating to a Libyan oasis under international control," said Shammam.

    But he added: "Our conditions have not changed: Gaddafi and his family members can absolutely not participate in a future government."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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