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Swiss leave Tripoli embassy after Libya stand-off

Tripoli, February 22, 2010

Two Swiss businessmen left the shelter of their country's embassy in Tripoli on Monday after Libyan police had surrounded the building in a long-running row which has drawn in governments across Europe.   

One of the two men, Max Goeldi, emerged alone from the embassy building and was met by a police general and a senior Justice Ministry official, who drove him off to start serving a four-month prison sentence for immigration violations.   

Earlier, the other Swiss man who had taken refuge in the embassy, Rachid Hamdani, came out. His lawyer said he was being taken by car to neighbouring Tunisia after Libyan authorities gave him clearance to leave the country.

Both men have been barred from leaving Libya since July 2008 after police in Geneva angered Tripoli by arresting a son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on charges -- later dropped -- of abusing domestic staff.

Libya denies there is any link between the cases of the two Swiss businessmen, who had been working in Libya, and the arrest in Geneva.   

The diplomatic row between Libya and Switzerland took on a Europe-wide dimension last week when Tripoli, in retaliation for Switzerland imposing visa restrictions on some Libyans, said it would stop issuing entry visas to most European citizens.

"The surrender of the two Swiss men from the embassy came in the framework of the implementation of the law. Libya is keen on implementing the law," senior Libyan Justice Ministry official Khaled Kouayeb told reporters outside the Swiss embassy.

"The first Swiss, Hamdani, is innocent and he was allowed to leave the country and go home and the second Swiss is going to prison to carry out his four-month jail term," said Kouayeb, who was one of the officials who met Goeldi outside the embassy.

Tripoli had issued a deadline to Switzerland to hand over the two men, who have been holed up in the embassy for months, by midday (1000 GMT) or face unspecified consequences.

Dozens of police surrounded the embassy building at one point, but these numbers were reduced before Hamdani, and then Goeldi, emerged from the compound.

The diplomatic row has threatened to undermine Europe's booming business ties with Libya, an oil producer that has been attracting billions of dollars in foreign investment since it emerged from decades of international isolation.      

Libyan officials had indicated previously that Hamdani would be allowed to leave Libya because he was acquitted of all the charges against him, but the sticking point was Tripoli's demand that Goeldi serve his sentence.

A police source said Goeldi was taken to the Ain Zara prison on the outskirts of Tripoli, where inmates serving short sentences are usually imprisoned.

There was no immediate indication whether the end of the embassy stand-off would lead to a solution in the parallel row over visas for European citizens.   

The European Union said last week it deplored a decision by Libya to stop issuing entry visas to citizens from the Schengen area -- a borderless zone that includes Switzerland and most European countries.   

Libyan media said the move was retaliation for Switzerland putting several senior Libyans, including members of Muammar Gaddafi's family, on a visa blacklist.

An EU diplomat in Brussels said on Monday that talks with Libyan officials on the issue on Sunday had made progress. "We're moving towards a resolution on the issue," said the diplomat.- Reuters




Tags: libya | swiss | Tripoli | businessmen |

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