AL-HERDA, Egypt (Reuters) - Armed men in an eastern Libyan city have kidnapped 16 Egyptian workers over a financial dispute between Libyan contractors and their Egyptian partner, residents of the workers’ home village said.
The incident revived concerns over the fate of thousands of Egyptians, most of them working as cheap labourers, in Libya — a country torn by lawlessness since Western-backed rebels toppled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Egyptian officials were not immediately available to comment.
Residents of the small village which the kidnapped workers came from — Al-Herda in the Nile Delta province of Kafr el-Sheikh — said that three of the hostages had escaped their captors but their whereabouts were not known.
The workers were seized four days ago in the city of Tobruk, on Libya’s eastern Mediterranean coast by unknown gunmen after Libyan contractors accused a business partner from the same Egyptian village as the kidnapped men of fleeing the country after he stole 100,000 Libyan dinars ($72,000).
The kidnappers have told the village residents through mediators that the men would be freed once the Egyptian businessman returned the money, residents said.
One resident said the kidnappers have threatened to take unspecified action against the hostages if the money was not paid.
“The Libyan side said he wants his money before letting the men go,” the resident, who asked not to be identified, said. He said the kidnappers have said they would deliver the men to Egypt’s land border crossing with Libya at Salloum once the money was paid.
Thousands of Egyptians, most driven by lack of jobs, have sought work in Libya since 2011, risking their lives in a country where Islamist militants and militias largely rule.
One resident of the Egyptian village said his brother paid 7,000 Egyptian pounds ($390) to smugglers who helped him reach Libya through desert roads.
“I am now worried about my brother’s life because killing in Libya has become a common practice,” the man who asked not to be identified, said.
One of the kidnapped men had travelled to Libya to help pay for a house he is building in his native Herda, his mother said.
“We all depend on him, his father is ill,” said Hasanat Mostafa, the mother.
Asked what needed to be done for her son, she said: “I want him to come back. The government should intervene and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi should intervene.”
In 2015, Islamic State militants killed 20 Egyptian Christians who were kidnapped while working in Libya.
(The story corrects paragraphs 12 and 13 to show named person is mother, not son).
Reporting by Ahmed Mansour and Ahmed Fahmy, writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Toby Chopra