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Red Cross Ferries Displaced, Prisoners From Libyan Capital

Young men in Benghazi celebrate their evacuation from Tripoli by the International Committee of the Red Cross, June 24 2011
Young men in Benghazi celebrate their evacuation from Tripoli by the International Committee of the Red Cross, June 24 2011

The International Committee for the Red Cross has brought some 300 people out of Tripoli to be reunited with family members in eastern, rebel-held Libya. Among them are prisoners of war captured by government forces in the uprising.

The ship pulled into the brilliant blue waters of Benghazi harbor Friday, on the first of three journeys the Red Cross has arranged to bring those displaced by the conflict back to their homes.

One of the passengers said he couldn't begin to describe how good it was to see Benghazi again.

Some 300 people made the journey eastward. Another 110 people, caught in Tripoli away from their homes when fighting broke out in February, are taking the ship back west.

A final trip, set for the coming days, will bring several hundred more back to the rebel stronghold. Dibeh Fakr is spokesperson for the ICRC in Benghazi:

"The ICRC is doing this operation today to reunite families that were separated because of the recent conflict - some families that were in Tripoli, working, studying or even visiting relatives and they couldn't come back because of the conflict and the front lines," said Fakr. "Same for families here in Benghazi. The main criteria was that these people should be initially residing on both sides."

Officials of the rebel's Transitional National Council kept the reunion on hold as they went on board to double check the documents and histories of those returning, ensuring no spies from the government of Moammar Gadhafi were among them.

Families on the dock waited patiently in the midday sun during the delay, knowing their ordeal was almost over. Abdsalaam Fatouri's nephew was among those coming home.

"He's been caught in the first day in the attack on Benghazi on the 19th of February," said Fatouri. "We thought he was dead, but we found out through one of his friends, one of the people who was arrested that he was in prison in Tripoli."

He was among about 50 former detainees on board. It was not clear why the government released the prisoners. Red Cross officials said they were not involved in getting them freed.

But not everyone was lucky to find a loved one.

Hassan al Bejou came down to the waterfront when he heard former POW's were were arriving. His brother was last seen in March on the frontlines of Ajdabiya, when his rebel unit came under attack.

He said he didn't have confirmation his brother was on board, but added it's better to have hope.

All the passengers had been accounted for, but it was a determination to remain positive that is shared by others across the country.

Rebel relief officials estimate there are about 10,000 people in eastern Libya whose whereabouts are unknown.