By Hadeel Al Shalchi
ZINTAN, Libya (Reuters) - The head of the International Criminal Court arrived in Libya ahead of the expected release later on Monday of four staff members, whose detention since early June plunged the interim government into its biggest diplomatic controversy to date.
Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor and Lebanese-born interpreter Helene Assaf were detained in the town of Zintan and accused of smuggling documents and hidden recording devices to Muammar Gaddafi's captured son Saif al-Islam. Two male ICC staff who were travelling with Taylor and Assaf have stayed with them.
Ajmi Ateri, head of the main Zintani ex-rebel brigade that seized Saif al-Islam and detained the lawyers, said the ICC officials would be freed on Monday after the court apologized.
"The ICC team held in Zintan will be freed today by the Libyan government in the presence of the ICC head, their ambassadors and a number of Libyan ministers. They will be allowed to return to their countries," he said.
Taylor had been sent to Libya to represent Saif al-Islam, whom the ICC wants extradited to face charges of war crimes allegedly committed during the NATO-backed revolt that toppled his father last year. Libya has so far refused to extradite Saif al-Islam, saying it would prefer to try him in its own courts.
Judicial experts say Saif al-Islam is unlikely to get a fair trial in Libya, where the arrests of the ICC officials have only served to highlight the challenges the interim government faces in imposing its authority on the myriad militias who helped topple Gaddafi and are now vying for power.
The western mountain town of Zintan is effectively outside central government control. With Saif al-Islam in its custody, the Zintani brigade gained leverage in dealings with the Tripoli government as it tries to negotiate his fate with the ICC.
President Sang-Hyun Song was greeted at Tripoli's international airport by Libya's justice minister, deputy foreign minister and other officials but made no comment before being whisked away in an official convoy to Zintan.
Late last month, the ICC expressed regret to Libyan authorities in what seemed to come close to an apology designed to secure the release of its employees.
The Hague-based court, U.N. Security Council, the head of NATO and human rights groups have urged Libya to free the ICC delegates in what has became its most serious diplomatic row since last year's anti-Gaddafi uprising.
(Additional reporting by Ismail Zitouny and Ali Shuaib in Tripoli and Thomas Escritt in Amsterdam; Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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