(CNN)An American teacher detained in Libya for more than six weeks has returned to the United States after the Libyan foreign minister personally intervened to expedite his release.
An American teacher held in Libya for 6 weeks is now back home in the United States
Fernando Espinoza, 29, landed Monday afternoon at New York's JFK International Airport to a welcoming party that included his mother, Sara Espinoza, and executives from the nonprofit Richardson Center who negotiated his return.
"I obviously made some mistakes, but multiple other parties made several mistakes as well, and it all just snowballed," Fernando Espinoza told CNN from the car on the way to his hotel.
Espinoza's arrival on US soil ended weeks of anguish for his mother, who said she was given very little information about where and why her son, a former US Navy submariner, was being held -- or when he would be freed. Her work to secure his release dovetailed with mounting political tensions as Libya approached what was supposed to be its first presidential election in a decade.
"I'm just feeling happy and grateful that he's back and that this didn't last as long as it could have lasted," Sara Espinoza said.
After CNN last week published a story about her search for answers, Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Murad Hamaima rejected suggestions Espinoza had disappeared and said officials had planned to deport him sooner but couldn't because of Covid protocols.
Espinoza told Libyan officials he wasn't vaccinated against Covid-19, so they gave him his first dose and were waiting to give him a second one, Hamaima said.
The Libyan foreign minister intervened in the case "to preserve the strong Libyan-American relations," according to a Libyan government statement.
Espinoza returned to the United States Monday via Cairo after showing proof of a negative PCR test, in line with Covid-19 entry rules for those countries.
A US State Department spokesperson said officials welcome reports of Espinoza's release, but "due to privacy considerations, we are not going to go into specifics at this time."
Espinoza arrived in Libya in early October to start a new job teaching English at an international school in Tripoli. About a month later, he decided to travel farther afield and hired a driver to take him to the city of Sebha, a nine-hour drive south of Tripoli.
From Sebha, he planned to meet a local guide who would take him to Gaberoun oasis, a salty lake with an abandoned Bedouin village about 58 miles (93 kilometers) west of the city. But before he reached Sebha, he was detained, according to Libyan officials and text messages he sent his mother.
Espinoza was detained by security services for "violating the procedures and being in areas of tension without obtaining the permission," according to a Libyan government statement.
He was released and continued his trip but was arrested on his return to Tripoli on November 9, according to friends, who received information from the school.
Espinoza had "violated his visa limitation," broken his contract with the school and left without telling anybody where he was going, Hamaima, the deputy foreign minister, told CNN on Thursday.
"I don't think this is acceptable anywhere in the world," Hamaima said.
Espinoza told CNN he was questioned about his presence in Libya, including why he'd left Tripoli to drive south.
"They were making a lot of false accusations (against me) ... of espionage, covert ops, interfering with elections, things like that. So they definitely scared me," he said.