BENGHAZI, Libya, June 24 (Reuters) - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has released dozens of rebel supporters and allowed them to sail back to Benghazi on Friday in a move that could mark the beginning of broader talks between the adversaries.
In a transfer facilitated by the Red Cross, a ship carrying about 50 men detained by Gaddafi forces in western Libya docked in Benghazi’s harbour alongside hundreds of other refugees.
“These are mainly civilians...Among them there are 51 people who were detained in Tripoli but were released by the government there so we brought them back,” said Dibeh Fakhr, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Benghazi.
Pointing at the vessel, festooned with opposition flags and a Red Cross banner, she said a total of several hundred people, including 66 former detainees, were scheduled to come back from Tripoli in two rotations.
In the other direction, 110 Tripoli residents trapped in the east would be allowed to sail to the capital, she said.
Rebel sources said the swap underlined Gaddafi’s weakness and willingness to discuss ways out of a war in the oil-rich North African nation that has been deadlocked since February.
Rebels said on Friday they were having indirect contacts with Tripoli on a possible political settlement under which Gaddafi would step down and pave the way for a new leadership.
“For Gaddafi, this release shows that he is weak and ready to step down,” said one rebel source. “He is the one who is initiating these talks. Otherwise why would this have happened?”
This view contrasted sharply with the sentiment in Tripoli where Gaddafi vowed in a state television broadcast this week to fight on until the end. Tripoli officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Separately, a rebel spokesman said they had earlier released five Gaddafi supporters and sent them back back to the west.
As the ship dropped anchor, crowds of Benghazi residents whistled and waved Libya’s opposition, monarchy-era flags.
Leaning from the handrails of the ship, passengers chanted: “Libya is for strong men. We don’t need Muammar and his family”. Smaller vessels escorting the boat into the harbour blasted their horns in greeting.
One passenger, who gave his name only as Murat, said: “I am from Benghazi. I am happy to be back. I was a prisoner in Tripoli. I don’t want to say anything more.”
Some were puzzled at the sudden changes of fortune for their family members whom they did not expect to see any time soon.
“My uncle was captured during a battle near Brega and has been in Tripoli all this time,” said Honaida Shuweihidin, 25.
“It’s very strange he was released. I don’t understand why. It’s a good idea. We are all brothers, one country. Revolution will come to Tripoli too.” (Writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by Robert Woodward)