March 11, 2011 / 1:46 AM / 9 years ago

UPDATE 3-Dutch marines freed by Libya flown out to Greece

* Marines arrive in Athens on Greek military plane

* To return to the Netherlands shortly

(Updates with quote from Dutch prime minister)

By Deborah Kyvrikosaios

ATHENS, March 11 (Reuters) - Three Dutch marines detained in civil war-hit Libya were released and flown to Athens aboard a Greek military plane on Friday.

They were met at Athens airport by Dutch government officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Ed Kronenberg who headed the delegation that negotiated their release.

“The people have been very well taken care off, they are in good health and in good shape,” Kronenberg told reporters. “They will be flying back to the Netherlands very soon.”

The marines were arrested on Feb. 27 at Sirte on Libya’s central Mediterranean coast when they tried to rescue a Dutch engineer and another European by helicopter.

The Dutch Defence Ministry confirmed the operation was carried out without authorisation from Libya, whose soldiers prevented the helicopter from taking off.

The civilians were later handed over to the Dutch embassy in Tripoli and returned to the Netherlands on March 2.

“Obviously we are overjoyed that this has happened. We were very worried about the situation. Last night it transpired that they would be out of Libya, which happened at the end of the morning, at the end of the night,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters in Brussels.

The three marines will return to the Netherlands soon but probably not on Friday to give them time to recover from their detention, Defence Minister Hans Hillen was quoted as saying by public broadcaster NOS.

The marines’ release was announced on Thursday by the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Saif al-Islam.

“We told them, don’t come back again without our permission. We captured the first NATO soldiers, we are sending them back home. But we are still keeping their helicopter,” he told Reuters.

Tens of thousands of foreigners living and working in Libya have left the country since a rebellion against Gaddafi’s 41-year rule broke out last month. (Additional reporting by Harry Papachristou in Athens and by Marine Hass in Brussels; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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