TRIPOLI // Libya’s prime minister was kidnapped for several hours on Thursday from the luxury hotel where he resides by militiamen supported by a rival politician.
Ali Zeidan returned to the government headquarters shortly after he was freed, waving to a waiting crowd of well-wishers.
“Security agencies are doing their job in maintaining the security of Libyans and foreigners alike”, Mr Zeidan said. His arrest was a result of “political manoeuvring in Libya”.
The incident came four days after US forces seized suspected terrorist Abu Anas Al Libi in Libya on suspicion of conspiracy to kill US nationals and to conduct attacks against American interests worldwide. Militia violence has plagued Libya since the capture and death of the former dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 and has intensified in recent months with groups refusing to heed government calls to disband.
“We hope this matter will be treated with wisdom and rationality, far from tension,” Mr Zeidan said. “There are many things that need dealing with.”
More than 100 militants stormed the Corinthia Hotel in downtown Tripoli at about 3am, ferreting Mr Zeidan away in a convoy after a brief scuffle with hotel security guards and the prime minister’s bodyguards.
The gunmen claimed to have an arrest warrant for Mr Zeidan, said Libya’s justice minister, Salah Marghani, who denied a warrant existed.
The militants arrived at the hotel in 15 armoured cars, said Al Habib Al Ameen, the culture minister. They took the prime minister from his room “and were willing to take more ministers but thank god they didn’t”.
“Mr Zeidan, like all other Libyan citizens, is not safe.”
Many government officials live in the hotel, an imposing tower located near the coast.
Another cabinet official said Mr Zeidan was possibly held in Maftouh Prison, in the suburbs of Tripoli. The prime minister’s son said he was not harmed.
A photo was released of Mr Zeidan squeezed between two militants, looking haggard in a grey collared shirt.
“This is making us look like fools in the eyes of the international community,” one cabinet minister said.
Details of the operation to free Mr Zeidan were unclear, but cabinet ministers had said that they were engaged in political negotiations for his release. Hashem Bisher, the chief of Tripoli’s government security forces, said in a post on Facebook that his forces had freed Mr Zeidan.
The militants were aligned with the Operations Room of Libya’s Revolutionaries, the government said. The group is a closely organised band that was set up this year under the auspices of a senior politician in Libya’s Congress, Mr Marghani said.
The head of the group claimed to have an arrest warrant to investigate Mr Zeidan on financial crimes, said the hotel security and the prime minister’s bodyguards.
Mr Zeidan told his security detail to stand aside to avoid bloodshed.
Three of the bodyguards went with the prime minister when he was taken away by gunmen.
Mr Zeidan has successfully held off numerous attempts to unseat him and his government this year by politicians in Libya’s interim congress. Mr Marghani said that he believed that the detention was related to the continuing political feuds in Libya.
Libya’s government has struggled to assert its authority across the country since the revolution, often at the mercy of militant groups who claim allegiance to the government but act according to their own will. Many of these groups were provided with arms by the West during the revolution, but since Qaddafi was toppled in 2011 the government has worked unsuccessfully to disarm them.
In Libya’s post-Gadhafi political landscape, former revolutionary leaders from far-flung provinces have tried to cement their new political power with the force of their men-at-arms. In Tripoli, leaders have tried to mitigate these regional power battles by keeping the ranks of the city’s new security forces filled with men from the capital.
The Operations Room of Libya’s Revolutionaries is a force whose gunmen are primarily from outside Tripoli. Because of the political rivalries that also exist in Tripoli there has been no consensus about how to disarm them or send them back to their hometowns.
The head of Tripoli’s official security force, Mr Bisher, said that he has been complaining for months about the presence of this large, rival band operating in the capital. But the political rivalries that exist between cabinet members and members of Congress, however, have made it impossible to streamline the rivals into the country’s national security forces.
As the day progressed Thursday, the reasons given for the prime minister’s kidnapping shifted from corruption allegations to the US raid that captured an Al Qaeda suspect over the weekend.
Al Arabiya news channel carried a statement from the Operations Room of Libya’s Revolutionaries’ spokesman saying, the kidnapping came after the statement by the US secretary of state John Kerry “about the capture of Abu Anas Al Libi, after he said the Libyan government was aware of the operation”.
The statement referred to the Qaeda operative who was captured last weekend by US commandos. Al Libi was indicted in 2000 for his role in the bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998.
The abduction Mr Zeidan marked a period of just more than a year when the US ambassador was killed, the French and Russian embassies attacked, military officers assassinated and oil production slumped.
* Dow Jones with additional reporting by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse