VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis expressed support on Sunday for 18 fishermen held in Libya, weighing in on a standoff between Italy and the administration of Khalifa Haftar, one of the North African country’s two rival leaders.
“I want to say a word of encouragement and support for the fishermen who have been held in Libya for more than a month, and for their families (who) are hoping to be able to embrace their dear ones soon,” Francis said at his weekly blessing in St. Peter’s Square.
Libyan patrol boats detained two Sicilian fishing boats on Sept. 1 and brought the crews to Benghazi, where the military commander Haftar holds sway. The crews, made up of Italians and Tunisians, were accused of operating in Libya’s territorial waters.
The fishing grounds have been disputed since 2005, when Libya’s then ruler, Muammar Gaddafi, unilaterally extended Libyan territorial waters to 74 nautical miles offshore from 12. Haftar, who controls eastern Libya, is trying to enforce this.
Italian newspapers have reported that Haftar wants Italy to hand over four Libyan nationals convicted of human trafficking in return for freeing the fishermen. Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio told parliament on Thursday that such an exchange would be “unacceptable”.
Francis also called for talks to bring peace to Libya, which is divided between Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). The GNA is internationally recognised.
“Brothers and sisters, the time has come to stop every form of hostility and favour dialogue that brings peace, stability and unity to the country,” he said.