Tripoli, 9 March: Two British journalists held by Misrata’s Saadoun Swehli brigade are expected to be released in the two or . . .[restrict]three days according to sources in Tripoli.
Nicholas Davies and cameraman Gareth Montgomery-Johnson, who work for Iran’s Press TV and who had been in Libya for the past six months, were arrested by members of the brigade in Tripoli on 21 February and have been held at its headquarters at the Girls’ Military Academy ever since despite efforts by the Libyan authorities to take possession of them.
The head of the brigade, Faraj Swehli, has until now persistently refused to do so and, last Sunday, accused them of spying for Israel.
However, the election of a new Misrata local council (MLC) last month has dramatically eroded the brigade’s freedom of action.
At the beginning of March, a new United Misrata Brigade was formed under the authority of the council. In an TV phone interview its commander, Tariq Bushneena, ordered all Misrata brigades stationed outside the city to return and join the new brigade unless specifically asked to remain by the interim government.
The brigade’s independence was then all but blown away this week at a three-day national conference in Misrata, attended by the NTC and representatives from towns and brigades — and actively supported by the new MLC. It ordered all non-local brigades in the capital and elsewhere, including the Saadoun Swehli brigade, to return to their home towns and hand everything they controlled to the government within one week. This included handing over ports, airports, border posts and road checks as well as the camps buildings and anything else they held.
The government had earlier ordered port, airports and border posts be surrendered with a deadline of last Monday. However, while brigades in the east of the country met the deadline, those in the west did not.
Keen to show its loyalty to the NTC, the Misrata council announced on Thursday that brigadesmen had now handed over the airport and the port to the Ministry of the Interior as well as all checkpoints leading into the city.
The Saadoun Swehli brigade has said they will comply, although it is said they did so with extreme reluctance. But it is seen as a major embarrassment in Misrata itself and members know they will be treated as counter-revolutionaries if they do not comply and hand over everything they hold — which in this case means the two Britons.
Interior Minister Fawzi Abdelal meanwhile made it clear in an interview on Thursday that patience with the brigade was wearing thin. Asked about the status of the two reporters, he said: “We have the ability to apply a military solution, but this could result in bloodshed and so we continue to negotiate.”
Getting the two out the brigade’s hands and it back to Misrata would be a major boost for the NTC and the interim government. Abdelal said recently that “one of the biggest challenges” is to regain control of the institutions and the borders that were currently held by the revolutionary brigades.
It is not just the Saadoun Swehli brigade that is regarded as an issue that has to be resolved — and seen to be resolved. There is hope, too, that the Zintan brigade holding Tripoli International Airport is also about to leave. In response to the Misrata conference, it issued a statement saying that it was “ready to hand over” the airport to the authorities, although no date was set.
It is reported that the brigade was reluctant to leave but was forced by the Zintan council which threatened to denounce it and break off relations with it.
It was also announced at the Misrata conference that the airport at Murzuq and two military camps in the area had been handed over to the national authorities.