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Korean hostage freed in Libya after 10 months

May 18,2019
A Korean man was freed after nearly a year of captivity by an armed group in Libya with crucial help from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government, the Blue House said Friday.

A 62-year-old employee of a waterway management company, who was kidnapped on July 6 last year in Jabal Hassouna, southwestern Libya, was released safely Thursday afternoon, Chung Eui-yong, head of the National Security Office at the Blue House, said during a press conference on Friday.

The worker was taken hostage at a camp run by the company, ANC, by around 10 armed militants. The Blue House and the Foreign Ministry, however, refused to elaborate on the identity of the kidnappers, only calling them a criminal group active in southern Libya, or their reason for abducting the man.

According to Chung, the hostage, whose surname is Ju, is currently in the UAE under the Korean government’s protection. He is scheduled to return to Korea today.

“Immediately after the abduction, the Korean government formed a task force, mainly with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Intelligence Service,” Chung said.

“We cooperated with not only the Libyan government, but also the U.S., British, French and Italian governments to locate the hostage, check on his safety and arrange his release.”

Chung thanked the countries that helped recover the hostage. “Particularly, the Korean government and President Moon Jae-in want to express special appreciation to the UAE government and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed [bin Zayed al-Nahyan] for their decisive role in facilitating the release.”

During a Korea-UAE summit in Seoul in February, the crown prince promised Moon his support for the recovery of the hostage. Since then, the UAE government worked actively to resolve the kidnapping case, Chung said.

A senior Blue House official also said diplomatic efforts by the UAE played a crucial role. “As far as I have heard from the UAE, no cash ransom was paid,” he said. “We understand that the UAE used its influence in the region and cooperative ties with tribes.”

The UAE Foreign Ministry also announced Friday the release of hostages. “Four detainees - three Filipinos and a South Korean - who were held captive by armed groups in Libya, have been released thanks to intensive efforts made by the UAE in coordination and cooperation with the Libyan National Army,” it said in a statement.

“Upon receiving requests from the Philippines and South Korea, the UAE communicated with the Libyan National Army to work on releasing them and to ensure their safety,” the statement said.

“As a result of solid cooperation and coordination between the UAE and the Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, search efforts had continued and resulted in finding them safely.”

According to Korean Foreign Ministry officials, the UAE government has maintained a special relationship with the Libyan National Army, mainly controlling the eastern Libyan region. It has been expanding its influence to other areas including the capital city of Tripoli.

Seoul dispatched the Cheonghae Unit to Libya in July immediately after the abduction was confirmed, but there was no attempt at a military operation to rescue the hostage. The troops left the area in November.

“We considered various measures, but a civil war is currently ongoing in Libya and the country is currently in a state of near anarchy,” Chung said. “So conducting a rescue operation or engaging in negotiations was not easy.”

According to Chung, the Blue House, not the Foreign Ministry, decided to make the announcement of Ju’s release because Moon has put enormous efforts into the case since he was taken hostage. “The greatest purpose of our government’s diplomacy is saving people’s lives.”

Korea’s relations with the UAE were strained after the Moon administration challenged a secret military deal it inherited from a previous government. The two sides, however, resolved the diplomatic row with a series of summits between Moon and the crown prince, as well as exchanges of special envoys. Since then, the bilateral relationship was upgraded to a special strategic partnership.

Im Jong-seok, Moon’s chief of staff who played a key role in resolving the diplomatic row in 2017, was named the president’s special adviser on diplomacy with the UAE after he left the Blue House in order to manage Korea’s tie with the UAE.

Asked if Im or other top government officials visited the UAE to seek its help, the Blue House refused to answer.

According to the government, Ju worked in Libya for more than two decades. The Korean and Libyan governments immediately detected the abduction, but kept quiet because publicity could jeopardize the hostage’s safety.

The abduction, however, was made public last August after video footage of the hostages including Ju was released by Libyan media. “Please help me, president, our country South Korea,” Ju said in English in the video, after identifying himself as a Korean citizen. Captors holding rifles were seen in the video.

The Blue House issued a statement saying Moon had issued an order on the day of the abduction to rescue the hostage using all possible means. In addition to sending troops to the region, the government also dispatched a special envoy to Libya.

Four other Korean nationals are still living in Libya despite the government’s strong advice they evacuate. “They are insisting that they can’t,” a senior presidential aide said.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]