(CP) Six Egyptian Christians kidnapped by a criminal gang in western Libya for ransom earlier this month have been released, Egypt's foreign ministry said Friday.
The men from Egypt's southern city of Sohag had traveled to Tripoli for work in early February and were kidnapped while they were on their way to the place of employment from the airport, according to The Associated Press, which said their Libyan driver was released immediately.
A foreign ministry's spokesperson tweeted Friday evening that the six men were expected to return to Egypt soon. However, no additional information regarding the release has been provided.
Numerous Coptic Christians cross over to Libya in search of work despite knowing that they will face severe persecution, including death.
The kidnappers were demanding a ransom of $3,100 per captive, the U.K.-based group Christian Solidarity Worldwide said.
Hani Sadrak, whose brother and three cousins were among the victims, reported earlier that the families could not afford the ransoms without selling their homes. He had called upon the Egyptian president and government to intervene.
The men were held in a very small room with many other captives of different nationalities, and were beaten daily and given little food for nourishment, CSW said.
"Their kidnappers must be held to account," CSW's Founding President Mervyn Thomas said. "We call upon the international community to press those who are in power in Libya to crack down on extremist and criminal groups and address the appalling discriminatory targeting and extortion of religious minorities and refugees."
Since 2011, Libya has been torn apart by civil war with competing governments headquartered in its capital, Tripoli, and the eastern regions. In western Libya, militia factions have accumulated significant riches and influence by abductions and human trafficking.
The abduction of the six men took place just days before the anniversary of the murders of 21 Egyptian Christians by Islamic State fighters in Libya on Feb. 15, 2015. The killings prompted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to launch air strikes against IS in Libya, and declare the victims "national martyrs."
The Coptic Orthodox Church also designated Feb. 15 as Contemporary Martyrs Day, and has commemorated it every year since.
In 2017, Libya's interior ministry said they had found a mass grave with the bodies of the 21 Coptic Christians.
"The heads are separated from the bodies clad in orange jumpsuits, hands bound behind the back with plastic wire," said the ministry's unit for fighting organized crime in the city of Misurata at the time, according to Agence France Presse.
The authorities came to know about the mass grave near the one-time IS bastion of Sirte, 280 miles east of Tripoli, after an IS prisoner confessed to the group's killings.
IS had kidnapped the Copts in separate incidents in Libya throughout December 2014 and January 2015. The terrorist group then released the video of their execution on Feb. 15, 2015, showing the Christian men in orange jumpsuits kneeling on the sand as the terrorists stood behind them, ready to carry out the executions at a beach near Tripoli.
ICC earlier reported that the victims' family members took pride in how their loved ones stood up to the Islamic radicals and refused to deny their faith despite the imminent threat of death.
One wife said that her husband "kept the faith, and was martyred in the name of Christ. His faith was very strong. I'm proud of him. He has lifted our heads up and honored us and all the Christians."
Another family member said: "I'm very happy that my brother is in Heaven with Jesus now. I loved my brother when he was alive on the Earth, but now I love him more than before. He was martyred in the name of Jesus Christ."