Detained British journalists handed over to Libyan government

TRIPOLI Wed Mar 14, 2012 8:32am EDT

In this picture taken on March 13, 2012 off television playback of a tape made available to Reuters, British journalists Gareth Montgomery-Johnson (L) and Nicholas Davies-Jones speak from an undisclosed location. REUTERS/Anis Mili

In this picture taken on March 13, 2012 off television playback of a tape made available to Reuters, British journalists Gareth Montgomery-Johnson (L) and Nicholas Davies-Jones speak from an undisclosed location.

Credit: Reuters/Anis Mili

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Two British journalists detained by a Libyan militia on suspicion of spying have been transferred to the custody of the government, deputy interior minister Omar al-Khadrawi said on Wednesday.

Nicholas Davies-Jones and Gareth Montgomery-Johnson, who were working for Iran's English-language Press TV, were detained on February 22 by the Swehli brigade, one of the dozens of militias which last year helped force out Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Earlier this month, the Swehli militia said the Britons, initially detained for illegal entry into Libya, were now suspected of spying.

"The British journalists are in our custody and will be released following procedural interrogation," Khadrawi told Reuters. "If no crime has been committed, they will be released soon."

On Tuesday, the militia released a video of the two Britons in which they apologized for entering the North African country illegally.

In a video message, which Davies-Jones dated as March 12, the journalists said they were being treated well. While both seemed calm and appeared in good physical shape as they spoke sitting on a couch, it was not clear whether they were speaking freely. There was no reference to the spying allegations.

In a separate video obtained by Reuters, the two journalists were shown carrying luggage as they entered a white SUV, which drove out of the militia's base, a former women's military academy in Tripoli.

Last week, commander Faraj al-Swehli told Reuters the pair were being questioned by his own investigators and that they had regular visits from the British consul.

International rights campaigners including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have said the two Britons have been detained illegally, and have called on the militia to either release them immediately or transfer them to the custody of the official Libyan authorities.

The fact they have been held by a militia -- which has no official status -- is emblematic of the instability and weak central government control in Libya since last year's rebellion ended Gaddafi's rule with help from NATO air strikes.

(Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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