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An American Air Force veteran who was accused of acting as a mercenary in Libya has been freed after a six-week detention by an armed faction in that country's civil war, officials said Tuesday.

Jamie Sponaugle, a 31-year-old Florida man, was flying a jet near the Libyan capital, Tripoli, on May 7 when his aircraft went down, according to individuals familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The Libyan National Army publicly accused a man The Washington Post is now identifying as Sponaugle of piloting a Mirage F1, a French-made combat jet, while conducting bombing missions against its forces in the area. The Post withheld publication of his detention at the request of U.S. officials who were working to secure his release.

The Libyan National Army is one of two factions locked in a yearslong battle for control of Libyan territory and government institutions.

The apparent involvement of an American military veteran in an ongoing battle for Tripoli between the Libyan National Army and its rival, the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord, illustrates the complexity of a long-simmering conflict that has emerged as a major global proxy war involving illicit arms and dueling accusations of mercenary use.

It also draws attention to the shifting U.S. policy on Libya. While senior officials in President Donald Trump's administration have devoted limited time to Libya, the president appeared to upend years of steady support for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord in April when he publicly praised Khalifa Hifter, the strongman who heads the Libyan National Army.

"We are always pleased to see an American held captive overseas returned home to their friends and family," Robert O'Brien, Trump's envoy for hostage affairs, said in a phone interview. "We appreciate his captors' decision to release him. We also thank the kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its role in resolving this case."

Sponaugle, whose identity as an American has not been previously reported, became an enlisted airman in 2006 and worked as a mechanic, Air Force officials said. After leaving active duty in 2013, he served for several years in the Florida Air National Guard. His last job as an active-duty airman was as an airspace technician, and his last duty station was MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla.

While he was not a pilot in the Air Force, he earned a pilot's license after his military service.

In imagery released by the Libyan National Army shortly after the incident, Sponaugle is seen bloodied and receiving medical treatment from army forces. Video that appeared on social media showed the same man identifying himself as a Portuguese citizen named Jimmy Rees and saying he was in Libya under a civilian contract focused with "destroying bridges and roads."

In the video that appeared on social media, the man who appeared to be Sponaugle did not say he worked for the Government of National Accord but named someone named "Hadi." Senior government officials including Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeg, who was in Washington this month as part of a trip designed to drum up American support for his government, have denied that the Government of National Accord uses foreign pilots.

It's not clear whether Sponaugle violated U.S. law by working for or fighting with any party in Libya. Many countries including the United States employ foreign security contractors, who can play a variety of roles.

After the man was captured, a Libyan National Army spokesman said he was being treated humanely and in accordance with international law. But U.S. officials remained concerned about his welfare.

A Section on 06/26/2019

Print Headline: Captive ex-airman released in Libya


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