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Concern is rising in Italy over the fate of the crew of two Italian fishing boats held captive in Libya for the past 50 days.

Some 18 fishermen – eight Italians, six Tunisians, two Senegalese and two Indonesians – were arrested at sea on September 1 for breach of territorial waters by forces loyal to Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar.

They are being held in Benghazi and have not spoken to their families for 40 days, Salvatore Quinci, the Mayor of Mazara del Vallo, a Sicilian fishing port, told RAI public radio on Tuesday.

Quinci said the wives, mothers and sisters of the fishermen are “deeply exhausted and concerned,” and feel “abandoned” by Italian institutions.

He confirmed that Haftar’s forces are demanding a prisoner exchange involving four Libyans convicted in Italy for human trafficking and causing a 2015 migrant boat shipwreck in which 49 died.

The Libyans have received lengthy jail sentences, but the Libyan side insists they are professional footballers who got on a migrant boat in the hope of reaching Germany.

Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio told the Senate on October 15 that the government was following a “low profile” strategy, using diplomatic and intelligence channels, to solve the dispute.

Di Maio said he asked for help from Russian and United Arab Emirates counterparts – who have close ties to Haftar “and they have reassured me that they are working on it.”

“The negotiation is really difficult, and for the past month we have not recorded any significant movement,” the Mayor of Mazara del Vallo told RAI.

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