World News

Two Italian hostages freed in Libya after companions die

ROME (Reuters) - Two Italian civilians held hostage in Libya since last July were freed on Friday, just 48 hours after two fellow captives were allegedly executed by Islamic State militants in the north African state.

The four were employees of Italian construction company Bonatti and were seized last year near the western Libyan city of Sabratha, near a compound owned by the energy group Eni.

The families of Gino Pollicardo and Filippo Calcagno confirmed the pair had been released and photos posted on Facebook showed the bearded men calling home.

“We are free and physically OK, but psychologically we are devastated,” said a handwritten note written by Pollicardo and published online by the Sabratha Media Center.

A spokesman for security forces in Sabratha, Sabri Kshada, said the two men were released during a raid early on Friday.

“(They) were found alive during a raid by the local fighters against one of the hideouts of Islamic State in Sabratha,” he said. There was no immediate confirmation of this.

On Thursday, the Foreign Ministry said the two other Bonatti workers, Fausto Piano and Salvatore Failla, had probably died in a firefight on Wednesday. Their bodies have been taken to Tripoli for eventual repatriation.

Libyan security forces attacked Islamic State militants in Sabratha on Wednesday and Kshada said two of the Italians were shot dead by the Islamists shortly beforehand.

Italian officials believe the four Bonatti workers were taken by a criminal gang hoping to secure a ransom.

Corriere della Sera newspaper reported on Friday that part of a ransom had been handed over prior to Wednesday’s attack. There was no immediate official confirmation of this.

Sabratha is one of several Libyan cities in which militants loyal to Islamic State have established a presence, taking advantage of the chaos that has plagued Libya since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in an uprising five years ago.

Libya is a former Italian colony, and Rome is working with other Western powers and the United Nations to try to convince two rival Libyan governments to create a single, unity coalition and focus their energy on the fight against Islamic State.

Italian officials have said Italy sent some 40 secret service agents to Libya in recent weeks, with an additional 50 special forces operatives set to join them. U.S., French and British special forces are also present in the country, officials and media have said.

Italy has said it is ready to send a much larger contingent there to help train local forces as soon as the U.N.-backed unity government is formed.

In an interview with Corriere della Sera on Friday, the U.S. ambassador to Italy, John Phillips, said: “Italy could send up to 5,000 troops. We need to make Tripoli safe and ensure that ISIS is no longer free to strike.”

In background briefings, Italian officials have indicated that any such force would be much smaller. They also say they would only send troops if asked to by the Libyans and would not have a frontline combat role.

Additional reporting by Antonella Cinelli in Rome and Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli; Editing by Alison Williams