March 12, 2009 / 1:27 PM / 10 years ago

Libya to free 170 Islamist prisoners -charity

TRIPOLI, March 12 (Reuters) - The Libyan government plans to release 170 members of a radical Islamist group jailed for plotting to overthrow the government of Muammar Gaddafi, the country’s leading charity said on Thursday.

The Human Rights Association, part of the powerful Gaddafi Foundation chaired by the Libyan leader’s son Saif al Islam, said the release was the fruit of two years of talks with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).

It said in a statement 136 LIFG militants had already been freed and "work is under way now to free the latest batch of its prisoners numbering 170". It did not specify when the release would take place.

The group’s leader Abdel Hakim Belhadj, widely known by the nom de guerre of Abu Abdallah Assadaq, said in a letter published in a newspaper on Thursday that his group and the government had built trust in their two years of dialogue.

"More than two years of talks have created trust so that the dialogue could bear fruit," he said in the letter printed in the daily Oea, which is close to Saif al Islam.

LIFG staged bloody battles in city streets and the mountains in the 1990s, killing dozens of soldiers and policemen, as part of its attempts to overthrow Gaddafi.

According to Libyan political and security sources, al Qaeda had been courting LIFG to join its North Africa wing but most of the group’s leadership opposed al Qaeda’s global strategy and believed it was unlikely bring about any change in Libya.

On Tuesday, Libyan authorities released two liberal dissidents Jamal al Haji and Faraj Hammaid from jail who had been sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2007 for planning the first peaceful demonstration by government opponents in Tripoli in more than two decades, rights activists said on Thursday.

"The release (of the two men) is a particularly welcome step in light of the Libyan authorities’ stated initiative of breaking with the past," said New York-based Human Rights Watch in a statement. (Writing by Lamine Ghanmi; Editing by Andrew Dobbie)

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