Libya: Coptic Christians captured by masked gunmen have been freed

Pro-government Libyan forces are engaged in ongoing clashes in Benghazi with the with the Shura Council of Libyan Revolutionaries who have joined forces with the Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia.Reuters

Thirteen Egyptian Coptic Christians who were captured in Libya on Saturday have been freed, according to a Libyan official.

A tribal leader insisted yesterday that the Christian workers who were taken at gunpoint from the northern city of Sirte had not been kidnapped but were detained by smugglers and later freed.

Eyewitnesses said on Saturday that the 13 had been taken by masked gunmen who went from room to room and asked for identification papers to separate Muslim workers from Christians.

Muftah Marzuq, head of the council of elders in Sirte Marzuq said: "The Egyptians were held by a group that deals in illegal people smuggling, because of a dispute involving money and transportation to the Harawa region east of Sirte."

The news of the abduction emerged on Saturday after a source close to the government said Islamist militant group Ansar al-Sharia was responsible.

Last week another seven Christians were reported missing in the North African country. Marzuq did not comment on this earlier incident.

Egyptian Christians have been targeted repeatedly in Libya in the past year. Seven Egyptian Christians were found shot execution-style on a beach in eastern Libya last February.

Local reports have said a Coptic doctor and his wife were murdered in their home in early December, with their daughter's body later found.

Bishop Angelos, general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, responded tot he attacks on Coptic Christians in a statement. "It is deeply concerning to witness the unprovoked, targeted and escalating attacks on Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya," he said.

He welcomed the efforts of the Egyptian government in liaising with Libyan authorities to provide safe passage for Coptic Christians returning from Libya.

Bishop Angelos said he is also trying to meet with the Libyan Ambassador to Britian to discuss these events.

Libya has been unstable since Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, with rival militant groups controlling the country's two largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi. Sirte is also largely controlled by militant Islamist groups, including Ansar al-Sharia.