Libyan authorities have jailed four members of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on suspicion of spying after they had been allowed access to Saif al-Qadhafi, son of the slain Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi, who is being held by a local militia in Zintan.

“A decision was made to put them in preventive detention for 45 days while investigations are conducted,” AFP quoted an official at the Libyan attorney general's office as saying.

Mr. Qadhafi is being held by the so-called Zintan brigade, whose head, Ajmi al-Atiri, said the four officials “were transferred yesterday [Sunday] to a prison on the orders of the prosecutor-general”. The surprising detention has raised questions about enforcement of rule of law in Libya, and brought into focus the fragility of the State, which seems incapable of asserting its authority over armed militias and war-lords.

Jolted by the unforeseen detention, the ICC President Sang-Hyun Song has issued a strong statement calling for the immediate release of the officials. “These four international civil servants have immunity when on an official ICC mission. I call on the Libyan authorities to immediately take all necessary measures to ensure their safety and security and to liberate them.” On Sunday, a special team from the ICC landed in Tripoli to seek their immediate release.

The four officials who have been taken captive are Melinda Taylor, an Australian national, Spaniard Esteban Peralta Losilla, Alexander Khodakov, a Russian career diplomat and Helen Assaf, an ICC translator from Lebanon. The visiting delegation was to discuss the impending trial including the appointment of a defence counsel for Mr. Qadhafi, who has been charged with crimes against humanity against the Libyan people.

Libyan authorities say the team was detained because their conduct had raised suspicions about their real intentions. Ahmed Jehani, Libya's envoy to the ICC, narrowed his focus on Ms. Taylor, who, he alleged was carrying a pen camera and a letter from Mr. Qadhafi's right hand man Mohammed Ismail, who is on the run.

The Libyan official alleged that the letter was coded with drawings and symbols, which could have been understood only by Mr. Qadhafi, the recipient, and the sender. “According to Libyan law, it would be spying, communication with the enemy,” he observed.

The detentions have evoked a sharp response from Australia, whose Prime Minister Julia Gillard urged the Libyan government “to expedite the end of Ms. Taylor's detention”. She said she would work with authorities in Spain, Russia and Lebanon — countries whose nationals are also in Libyan custody — so that maximum pressure can be mounted on the authorities.

Analysts say the bizarre incident where a local militia has taken on a U.N. organisation points to the chaos in Libya, a year after a NATO aided uprising brought down the Muammar Qadhafi regime. On Sunday, the Libyan authorities announced postponement of their first post-uprising national elections, apparently due to lack of preparations for the vote.

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