CAIRO // A mountain militia in western Libya defied diplomats, the International Criminal Court and their own president yesterday by detaining an ICC legal delegation for a third day.
The four ICC staff are accused of trying to pass forbidden material to Saif Al Islam, imprisoned son of the former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, while visiting him in Zintan. The military council in Zintan said they tried to give him a camera and a letter from Mohamad Ismail, a senior member of the Qaddafi regime.
Ahmed Jehani, the Libyan envoy to the ICC, said the Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor and her Lebanese translator Helen Assaf were being held but two other members of the team, a Russian and a Spaniard, stayed behind voluntarily.
"We are very concerned about the safety of our staff in the absence of any contact with them," said Song Sang-Hyun, the ICC president. He called on the Libyan authorities to free the team.
The Australian foreign minister Bob Carr also called for Ms Taylor's release and said consular officials in Libya had not been granted access to her.
The military council spokesman in Zintan said the four were in a guesthouse and being treated well, but would not be released until a justice ministry investigation was complete.
The incident highlights the continuing independence of the powerful militias, usually headquartered in one town or area, which were formed when much of the country rose up against Qaddafi last year.
Zintani authorities have disregarded a direct request from Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council and effectively Libya's head of state, to transfer the legal team to Tripoli. The spokesman said the militia does not trust Mr Abdel-Jalil to detain the group and they are uncertain about security in the capital.
"We are keeping them for the same reason we keep Saif Al Islam. If any of them go to Tripoli, they will leave Libya," the spokesman said.
The militia has insisted on holding Saif Al Islam since they captured him last year, despite requests from the government to transfer him to the capital. He is expected to stand trial either in Libya or at the ICC in The Hague.
Fighters from Zintan and other militias have controlled overlapping patches of Libya's major cities, roads and ports since the fall of Qaddafi. This has provoked occasional turf battles and given rise to fears that the government's grip on the country is too weak to maintain stability.
Zintani fighters until recently controlled the commercial airport in Tripoli and occupied a luxury housing estate in the capital, despite government requests for them to leave.
Ibrahim Haidi, a development consultant who worked with the transitional government on justice and security in its early stages, said many Libyans trust groups such as the Zintanis as much as, if not more than, the government.
"The general public opinion is that there is a plot, and that the ICC has been infiltrated with Qaddafi supporters, and that the Zintanis are doing a great job," he said.
Peter Cole, of the International Crisis Group think tank, said that in Libya's postrevolutionary quest for stability and control, incidents such as the detention of the ICC legal team are not as simple as an irregular militia challenging a neutral, legitimate government.
"I think the Zintani position is much misunderstood," said Mr Cole. "The National Transitional Council does actually rely on them quite a lot to do a lot of mediation work with the West, and they are happy with that."
Although the international community recognises Mr Abdel-Jalil as the Libyan leader, to groups such as the Zintanis he is only one of a number of figures of authority.
"He just happens to be the one that the international community respects," said Mr Cole. "Abdel-Jalil sits on the top of a bureaucracy dominated by former Qaddafi people, and the National Transitional Council is not seen as controlling its own government."