TRIPOLI // Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan was freed from captivity just hours after gunmen abducted him Thursday at dawn from the hotel where he resides in the capital according to the state news agency. The abduction appeared to be in retaliation for the US special forces’ raid over the weekend that seized a Libyan Al Qaeda suspect from the streets of the capital.
Mr Zeidan’s abduction reflected the weakness of Libya’s government, which is virtually held hostage by powerful militias, many of which are made up of militants.
Government Spokesman Mohammed Kaabar told the Lana new agency that Mr Zeidan has been “set free” and was on his way to his office. The brief report gave no further information and details were sketchy, but it appeared Libyan forces had intervened in some way and that the abductors did not free Mr Zeidan voluntarily.
A militia commander affiliated with the interior ministry told a private Libyan television station that the prime minister was freed when members of a Tripoli-based militia stormed the house where he was held hostage.
aitham Al-Tajouri, commander of the so-called “Reinforcement Force,” told Al Hurrah television that his men exchanged fire with the captors but that Zeidan was not hurt.
“He is now safe in a safe place,” he said. His account could not be independently verified.
Militants were angered by the US capture of the suspected Al Qaeda member, known as Abu Anas Al Libi, and accused the government of allowing the raid to happen or even colluding in it.
Witnesses told said that up to 150 gunmen drove up in pickup trucks and laid siege to the Corinthia Hotel before daylight. A large group of them entered the building, some stayed in the lobby while others headed to the 21st floor where Mr Zidan was staying.
The gunmen scuffled with the prime minister’s guards before they seized him and led him out at around 5.15am, said the witnesses, speaking on condition of anonymity because they feared for their own safety. They said Mr Zeidan offered no resistance while he was being led away.
In a sign of Libya’s chaos, the capture was depicted by various sources as either an “arrest” or an abduction — reflecting how interwoven militias are in Libya’s fragmented power structure.
Mohammed Shaaban, Corinthia’s security manager, said the gunmen showed the hotel’s management an arrest warrant they claimed had been issued by the public prosecutor.
The public prosecutor’s office said it had issued no warrant for Zeidan’s arrest.
With the country’s police and army in disarray, many militiamen are enlisted to serve in state security agencies, though their loyalty is more to their own commanders than to government officials and they have often intimidated or threatened officials. The militias are rooted in the brigades that fought in the uprising that toppled the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, and are often referred to as “revolutionaries”.
A statement on the government’s official website said the prime minister was taken to an “unknown location for unknown reasons” by a group believed to be “revolutionaries” from a security agency known as the Anti-Crime Committee. The Cabinet held an emergency meeting this morning, headed by the deputy PM, Abdel Salam Al Qadi.
Meanwhile, Abdel Moneim Al Hour, an official with the Anti-Crime Committee, said Mr Zeidan had been “arrested” on accusations of harming state security and corruption.
A government official said gunmen broke into the luxury hotel in downtown Tripoli where Zeidan lives and abducted him and two of his guards. The two guards were beaten but later released. The official spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
A grainy photograph widely posted on social networking sites purportedly shows Zeidan being led from the Tripoli hotel by two young men, one of them bearded, holding him from both arms. The prime minister is frowning and looking dishevelled. The photo also shows the arm of a third man resting on his left shoulder.
Hours after the abduction, the streets of Tripoli appeared normal, with the bustle of the morning rush hour traffic. Children went to school as usual and stores opened.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, travelling with Secretary of State John Kerry in Brunei, said Washington was “looking into these reports and we are in close touch with senior US and Libyan officials on the ground.”
The snatching of Zidan came hours after he met with the family of Al Libi, whose real name is Nazih Abdul Hamed Al Ruqai — the Al Qaeda suspect seized by the Americans in a bold raid in Tripoli on Saturday morning. US officials said Al Libi was immediately taken out of the country and is now being held on a US warship.
* Associated Press