CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s foreign ministry on Friday urged Libyan authorities to help release six Christian Egyptians who were kidnapped then illegally detained earlier this month in western Libya.
The men, all relatives from Egypt’s southern city of Sohag, were abducted after traveling to the lawless North African country in search of work in early February, according to Amir Nassif, a lawyer for the men’s family.
Ravaged by civil war since 2011, Libya is divided between rival governments based in its capital Tripoli and its eastern areas. In western Libya, militia groups have amassed great wealth and power from kidnappings and their involvement in the country’s lucrative human trafficking trade.
Nassif told The Associated Press that one of the abducted men contacted his family earlier this week saying that they needed 15,000 Libyan dinars, around $3,100, as a ransom for each of them to be released.
The men, who are all Coptic Christians, are being held in a migrant detention facility near the western city of Zawiya under the guard of a militia prominent in Libya’s west, Nassif said. The group has threatened to kill the men if the ransom is not paid, he said.
Friday’s statement was the first official word on the kidnapping. The Egyptian foreign ministry said the men were being held at a detention center for migrants beyond the control of Libyan authorities. The men only had travel permits to be in the east of the country, it said.
Migrants have reported being tortured, forcibly detained, and held for ransom by militia groups running similar facilities in western Libya.
While the precise circumstances of the kidnapping and transfer to the migrant center remain unknown, Nassif said the men were set up by a Libyan driver after the group left the eastern city of Benghazi in early February. The men are now being held in a center west of Tripoli, he added.
The spokesmen for Libya’s Tripoli administration did not respond to AP’s request for comment.
Over the past few days, the incident has whipped up anger in Egypt. In a tweet posted Thursday, lawmaker Mostafa Bakry suggested Egypt’s foreign ministry should be doing more to secure the release of the men.
The Egyptian government sees the chaos in neighboring Libya as a threat to its stability, with militants using the Libyan desert as a safe haven from which to launch deadly attacks on Egyptian security forces.
Egypt does not recognize the head of the Tripoli government Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. Cairo argues that his mandate has ended after the country failed to hold planned elections in December 2021, and instead recognizes his rival Fathi Bashaga, based in eastern Libya.
However, in recent months, Egypt has hosted cross-administration talks with various Libyan political leaders, in a bid to end the crisis.
Oil-rich Libya is home to thousands of Egyptian economic migrants. Many of these are from Egypt’s Coptic community, who have long complained of discrimination by the nation’s Muslim majority.
Amid Libya’s decade of chaos, Egyptian Copts have often been targeted by armed Libyan militias and Islamist groups. In 2015, 21 Coptic Christian workers, most of whom were Egyptians, were beheaded in the coastal city of Sirte by Islamic State militants.