CAIRO -- Twenty-three Egyptian workers who were recently detained by militias allied with the Tripoli-based government in western Libya and later released arrived home on Thursday, Egypt's official news agency MENA reported.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military renewed its accusations that the Russian government is deploying warplanes to the North African country.
The release and repatriation of the Egyptian workers came on the heels of footage circulated on social media purportedly showing militias linked to the U.N.-supported government humiliating scores of Egyptians captured in the western town of Tarhuna.
Egypt is aligned with the commander of Libya's east-based forces, Khalifa Hifter, who has been fighting the Tripoli-based government and the militias that support it. In April 2019, Hifter's forces launched an assault to take Tripoli.
Egyptian media said the "prompt" repatriation of the workers was the outcome of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s diplomatic efforts. Pictures of the returnees raising Egyptian flags shortly after their arrival at the Salloum crossing near the Libyan border were posted by local media outlets.
“We lived through horror and we felt we could die at any moment,” said an unnamed Egyptian construction worker upon his arrival.
On Monday, a video purportedly showing scores of Egyptian workers being coerced by Tripoli-allied militias to line up in rows and stand on one leg while raising their hands upward, was widely shared online. In the same video, workers are forced to repeat after their captors phrases hailing the military operations of the Tripoli-based government and to insult President el-Sissi and his ally Hifter.
In Egypt, where the videos have sparked widespread outrage, Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal warned that the government would “determine the time and place of its response.” The U.N. mission in Libya also said the mistreatment runs counter to Libya’s “human rights law obligations on the prohibition of torture, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment.”
On Wednesday, the Interior Ministry of the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli released a statement saying it had arrested the assailants who appeared in the video and was working on prosecuting them.
“Historical Libyan-Egyptian relations cannot be threatened by isolated acts that do not represent the Libyan state or the values of the Libyan people,” read the statement. “The Interior Ministry affirms that it will go after whoever violates rights and laws firmly.”
Since 2015, Libya has been divided between two governments, one in the east and another in the west. For over a year, Egypt has backed the military offensive launched by Hifter to take Tripoli from the rival government. Hifter's march on Tripoli is also supported by Russia, France and the United Arab Emirates.
Earlier this month, Hifter's military campaign was brought to a halt after his rivals seized control of the capital's exit and entry points and chased Hifter's troops out of Tarhuna, his last stronghold in western Libya.
As the town changed hands, both sides faced scrutiny over extensive human rights abuses. The U.N.-supported government announced that dozens of bodies had been uncovered in several mass graves in the city, and accused a Hifter-allied militia of carrying out the killings.
Tens of thousands of Egyptians have sought work in neighboring Libya over the years, although the number has declined since the 2011 uprising that ousted and killed longtime autocrat Moammar Gadhafi.
The recent incendiary footage of Egyptian workers raised concerns that Egypt's armed forces could launch a military operation into neighboring Libya to avenge its citizens.
In 2015, Egypt launched a series of airstrikes on the city of Derna after the Islamic State group released a video showing the apparent beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians by IS militants. Two years later, Egyptian warplanes targeted the same city following an ambush by another group of Islamic militants that killed nearly 30 Christian pilgrims traveling to a remote monastery near the Egyptian-Libyan border.
The recent defeats suffered by Hifter came after the Turkish government threw its full military backing behind its allies in Tripoli by sending armored drones, air defenses and more recently Syrian militants with links to extremist groups. Russia, meanwhile, has deployed hundreds of mercenaries to boost Hifter’s assault.
The U.S. Africa Command released a statement Thursday accompanied by two photographs, saying it had photographic evidence of Russian aircraft being deployed in Libyan airspace.
The statement claimed one photo showed a Russian aircraft taking off from the desert district of al-Jufra and another showed a Russian fighter plane operating in the vicinity of the coastal city of Sirte. Sirte is where most of the fighting has been taking place since Hifter withdrew from the west. The statement did not specify when the photographs were taken.
“Russia’s sustained involvement in Libya increases the violence and delays a political solution,” said Brig. Gen. Bradford Gering, the Africa Command's director of operations.