By Hadeel Al Shalchi
ZINTAN, Libya (Reuters) - Libya freed four officials from the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Monday, whose detention since early June on spying allegations had plunged the interim government into its biggest diplomatic controversy since last year's revolution.
Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor and Lebanese-born interpreter Helene Assaf were held in the town of Zintan and accused of smuggling documents and hidden recording devices to Muammar Gaddafi's captured son Saif al-Islam. Two male ICC staff who were travelling with Taylor and Assaf stayed with them.
The four were freed on Monday after an apology from the ICC, whose president, Sang-Hyun Song, travelled to Zintan for the release after weeks of pressure from the Hague-based court, the U.N. Security Council, NATO and the Australian government.
"I wish to apologize for the difficulties which arose due to this series of events. In carrying out its duties (the ICC) has no intention to compromise the national security of Libya," Song told a news conference in the western town.
Taylor and Assaf emerged after the news conference from a small room where they had been waiting and were taken to another area where they ate lunch. They looked tired and were dressed in black Islamic robes with their hair partially covered, but were smiling. They did not respond to questions from Reuters.
The ICC staff were escorted by ambassadors for their countries to Tripoli's military airport on Monday evening. Smiling and laughing, they boarded an Italian plane which was headed for Europe.
Taylor had been sent to Libya to represent Saif al-Islam, whom the ICC wants extradited to face charges of war crimes allegedly committed during the NATO-backed revolt that toppled his father last year. Libya has so far refused to extradite Saif al-Islam, saying it would prefer to try him in its own courts.
"The agreement was that there would be a continuation of the negotiations with the ICC," Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdel Aziz told the news conference.
"If the ICC wants to send another team they will have to send one that respects Libyan sovereignty."
Judicial experts say Saif al-Islam is unlikely to get a fair trial in Libya, where the arrests of the ICC officials only served to highlight the challenges the interim government faces in imposing its authority on the myriad militias who helped topple Gaddafi and are now vying for power.
The western mountain town of Zintan is effectively outside central government control. With Saif al-Islam in its custody, the Zintan brigade gained leverage in dealings with the Tripoli government as it tries to negotiate his fate with the ICC.
The arrest of the ICC officials also put the interim government in an awkward position where it was essentially negotiating a deal between his captors and the outside world.
Late last month, the ICC expressed regret to Libyan authorities in what seemed to come close to an apology designed to secure the release of its employees. Libya also extracted a promise that the ICC would investigate the incident.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch welcomed the release but said Libya had no right to detain the officials in the first place.
"Libya was under a legal obligation to respect the immunity of the Court staff; if the Libyan authorities had any concerns regarding their conduct, they should have submitted a complaint to the Court," said Richard Dicker, International Justice Program Director at HRW.
(Additional reporting by Ismail Zitouny and Ali Shuaib in Tripoli and Thomas Escritt in Amsterdam; Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Michael Roddy)