TRIPOLI, Libya – Forty-four Arabs believed to have lived for years in Afghanistan were flown to Libya on Thursday as part of an initiative by a charity led by a son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The passengers, mostly Libyans, did not belong to any armed groups in Afghanistan, said officials with the charity headed by Seif el-Islam Gadhafi.
As the flight arrived from Islamabadd, dozens of men and women at Tripoli airport welcomed their relatives with hugs, tears and trills of joy.
Preparations for their transfer to Libya began in November and involved payments to Afghan tribal leaders to allow their passage to Pakistan, said Mohammed Ismail of the Gadhafi International Association for Charitable Organizations. He did not say how big the payments were.
More such transfers were planned, he said.
In the days after the U.S.-led military campaign toppled Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, Arabs and other foreigners faced harassment in the capital because they were assumed to be Taliban allies. Libyan officials began talking then about the need to bring Arabs out of Afghanistan.
Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network is known to have included hundreds of Arabs in its ranks who fought alongside the Taliban against U.S. troops and their Afghan allies.
It wasn't immediately clear why all the passengers Thursday had originally gone to Afghanistan, where some had spent 10 to 15 years.
One passenger, Asaad Allafi, told The Associated Press aboard the flight that he went to Afghanistan in 1991 to work for a Libyan humanitarian organization.
Another, 13-year-old Abdel-Rahman Al-Asmar, said he was born in Peshawar, Pakistan, of an Afghan mother and a Jordanian father. Al-Asmar's father, according to organizers, was recently detained in Islamabad, and the boy said that he and his family left Peshawar to go to Afghanistan before the war broke out in October. He didn't know why they went.
The United States accuses Libya of sponsoring terrorism because of its support of militant anti-Israeli groups. Experts say Al Qaeda has cells in Libya, but Gadhafi also is known to have cracked down on Libyan Islamic militants.
Moammar Gadhafi in November called for all foreign guerrillas fighting with the Taliban to be handed over to their governments to try them.
Gadhafi, once a sworn enemy of the United States, has condemned the Sept. 11 attacks but maintains that he won't brand bin Laden a terrorist until an international conference agrees on a definition of "terrorism."