US Air Force veteran Jamie Sponaugle was released from captivity in Libya this week where he has been held since early May by the Libyan National Army on accusations of being a mercenary, according to US government officials and a source familiar with the matter.
Sponaugle was freed after being held captive for weeks by forces loyal to renegade Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, which in April began an offensive to seize the Libyan capital of Tripoli from the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
While the State Department claims that US policy of supporting the GNA remains enact, President Donald Trump’s praise for Haftar earlier this year signaled a departure from previous administration statements condemning the rogue Libyan general’s march on the capital.
It remains unclear if Trump has been briefed on Sponaugle’s release or if the development will impact US policy towards Libya, but the President’s envoy for hostage affairs said Tuesday that he is encouraged by the development.
“We are always pleased to see Americans held captive overseas returned home to their friends and family,” Robert O’Brien told CNN Tuesday, after the Washington Post broke the story.
“We appreciate his captors’ decision to release him. We also thank the kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its role in resolving this case,” he said.
Sponaugle was captured by LNA forces in early May when the jet he was flying near Tripoli went down.
LNA forces took Sponaugle in and accused him of being a mercenary for the Government of National Accord, the interim government in Libya which is recognized by the United Nations but has difficulty enforcing its rule beyond the capital. It is hobbled by internal feuds and depends for security on rival militia, most of whom have an Islamist complexion.
Over the last few weeks State Department officials at various levels, including Trump’s envoy for hostage affairs, have been in touch with Sponaugle’s captors to facilitate this release.
Saudi Arabia was very helpful in resolving the matter, according to a senior US government official.
Sponaugle will be landing in Saudi Arabia Tuesday and then he will decide where he wants to go, the sources explained.
Libya has been plagued by violence since the ouster and killing of longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
Haftar took part in the coup that brought Gadhafi to power 50 years ago — now in his mid-70s, he has sent his forces across the desert from Benghazi in a bid to seize the country for himself.
His main supporters are Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Trump was strongly criticized for praising Haftar as his forces moved in on the capital earlier this year after meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is a Hafter supporter.
The White House’s official readout of a phone call between Trump and Haftar, who holds US citizenship, made no mention of the offensive on Tripoli, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had criticized earlier in April.
“We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital,” Pompeo said in a statement issued at the time.
“This unilateral military campaign against Tripoli is endangering civilians and undermining prospects for a better future for all Libyans,” he added.
More than 400 people have been killed in the latest offensive and more than 2,000 wounded, according to the World Health Organization. The UN’s humanitarian affairs office said more than 60,000 people have fled their homes.