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British journalists accused by militia group of spying in Libya

Chris Stephen

Group presents 'suspicious material' it says was found on men and vows to continue holding them

March 4, 2012

In a direct challenge to the authority of Libya's government, a militia group has said it will continue holding two British journalists arrested last month on suspicion of espionage.

The militia staged a late-night press conference in a Tripoli hotel to unveil what they said was evidence of improper activities.

Gareth Montgomery-Johnson, 36, and reporter Nicholas Davies, 37, who work for Iran's state-owned Press TV, were arrested 23 February by a Misrata militia based in Tripoli.

Dr Suleiman Fortea, a Misratan member of Libya's ruling National Transitional Council, said the militia had government authority to hold the men because they represented the "February 17 Revolution", the date on which Libya's revolution began last year.

"We are all part of the government, the militias and government are together," said Fortea. "Intelligence services around the world have the authority to hold onto suspects while they are investigating them." He cited the example of Tripoli's militia commander, Abdul Hakim Bilhaj, who was detained by the United States in 2004 accused of terrorism in an operation Bilhaj has said Britain was complicit.

The detention of the two men has already prompted protests from Amnesty International, which has demanded that the Libyan government take custody of the men and call the militia to account.

In a sometimes rambling press conference, Fortea, flanked by camouflaged militiamen, showed what he said was suspicious material found on the two men.

This included a field dressing in a black wrapper which he said was suspicious because it was "made in Israel" and lists of Tripoli militia members killed in clashes last year.

Also presented were still photographs found on the men of Libyan militiamen in combat poses, a photocopy of an Iranian residence permit in one of the men's passports and what appeared to be a television editing script. Asked what was suspicious about the items, Fortea said "further investigation" would be necessary.

The militia then screened footage found in the two men's computers, consisting of what appeared to be home movies showing the two men dancing in Tripoli's Martyr's Square over a music soundtrack.

"They also had pornography," said Fortea.

He said he had informed Libya's interior and defence ministries, and had received no complaints about their decision to continue detaining the men. "They [the ministries] all know what they are doing."

Neither ministry has a press office and no officials were available for comment on Sunday night.

"We have the total responsibility for security in Tripoli," said Faraj al-Swehli, the militia commander.

Fortea said the men would remain in detention in the former women's military academy on Tripoli's beachfront and that more inquiries would be needed to determine if they were spies. "It is too early to decide. This is something that will be proved after further investigations."

Swehli said: "We have to protect the 17 February Revolution and not everyone who carries a camera is really a journalist."

Their announcement will cause concern among diplomats already worried about the inability of Libya's authorities to rein-in militias, following the release of video footage showing a militia near Benghazi vandalising a British war graves site.

Swehli's militia last week saw its main checkpoint in Misrata attacked by other militias of the city's military council, who accused it of holding captives in illegal detention.

Protests are planned for Monday by Tripoli citizens against the continued presence in the city of militias from Misrata and other units from outside the Libyan capital, who they say are a threat to security.



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