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UN expert held in Tunisia over alleged espionage freed on bail

Moncef Kartas was detained on arrival in Tunis on 26 March
Moncef Kartas, a Tunisian-German national and member of the UN panel of experts for Libya (AFP)

A United Nations arms expert held in Tunisia since late March on espionage charges was released Tuesday on bail, the prosecution service said.

Moncef Kartas is a member of the UN panel of experts investigating allegations of violations of an arms embargo and other sanctions imposed on Libya.

The Tunisian-German dual national was detained on arrival in Tunis on 26 March.

"The indictment division has decided to release Moncef Kartas on bail," prosecution spokesman Sofiene Sliti said.

But Kartas was still being prosecuted for the "unofficial collection of information related to terrorism, which constitutes a dangerous crime", he told AFP.

The investigation had uncovered equipment used to control civil and military air traffic and whose use "requires authorisation", he added.

The United Nations said it was "encouraged" by his release.

"We have been informed that earlier today a Tunisian appeals court has reviewed the case against Mr Kartas and has decided to release him," spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at UN headquarters in New York.

"We are currently seeking further information from the government including with respect to the status of the legal proceedings against Mr Kartas."

Kartas's defence team has said the charges are linked to the arms expert's possession of a device allowing him to have access to data on flights of civil and commercial aircraft.

The device, an RTL-SDR, was used "only for monitoring air traffic to Libya, in order to identify flights that could be linked to violations of the arms embargo", said his lawyer Sarah Zaafrani.

Last week, the United Nations rejected Tunisia's reasons for Kartas's arrest and demanded charges be dropped and his immediate release.

It argued that, as a UN employee, Kartas was subject to diplomatic immunity, but Tunisia challenged this.

The UN panel investigating the alleged sanctions breaches has reported that arms and ammunition deliveries still reach warring parties in Libya - with the involvement of member states - despite the embargo.

Libya, which borders Tunisia, has seen an uptick in violence since military strongman Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive on 4 April to take the capital Tripoli from the UN-recognised government.

An arms embargo has been in force since Libya's 2011 revolt that toppled its longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi.