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Published: Sunday January 26, 2014 MYT 8:41:09 PM
Updated: Sunday January 26, 2014 MYT 8:42:13 PM

Libya, Egypt in talks over Tripoli diplomat hostages

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya's government was in talks on Sunday with Egypt to resolve a hostage crisis after gunmen kidnapped five Egyptian diplomats in Tripoli in retaliation for Egypt's arrest of a top Libyan militia commander.

Gunmen grabbed five diplomatic staff from their homes in the Libyan capital within 24 hours, including the cultural attaché, after the powerful Islamist-leaning militia reported its commander Shaban Hadia was detained in Egypt.

Kidnappers on Saturday later called Dubai-based Arab channel Al Arabiya, demanding Hadia's release in 24 hours and put one of the Egyptian diplomats on the line to plead with their government to meet the demands.

"They are still being held," Libya's Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

"Talks between the Libyan and Egyptian sides are at the top level, the prime ministers are talking to each other."

Hadia commands the Operations Room of Libya's Revolutionaries, a powerful militia, which denied it was involved in the Egyptian kidnappings.

The abduction of five diplomats in the Libyan capital illustrated the fragility of government control over former rebels and militias who two years ago helped topple Muammar Gaddafi in a NATO-backed revolution.

Heavily armed ex-fighters, militiamen and Islamist militants who battled Gaddafi forces have refused to disarm and often remain more loyal to their brigades, tribal leaders or local regions than to the new Libyan government.

The Operations Room of Libya's Revolutionaries is nominally under the control of chief of staff to work with the armed forces, but the militia has before used military muscle to make political demands on the state.

Operations Room commanders denied any involvement in the diplomat abductions. But on Friday, they had warned of a response if Hadia were not released.

The group said he was arrested visiting Egypt with family for medical treatment.

The group was accused of briefly abducting Libya's Prime Minister Ali Zeidan in Tripoli in October last year. It initially claimed it had arrested the premier, but later denied that after he was released hours later.

Egypt's ambassador to Libya and other diplomats and their families arrived on Saturday back in Cairo after the government evacuated the embassy in Tripoli and the consulate in Benghazi as a precautionary measure.

(Reporting by Patrick Markey and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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