Tripoli (AFP) – Gunmen seized Prime Minister Ali Zeidan in Tripoli Thursday and held him for several hours before he was freed, in the latest sign of Libya’s lawlessness since Moamer Kadhafi was toppled in 2011.
The pre-dawn seizure of Zeidan came five days after U.S. commandos embarrassed and angered Libya’s government by capturing senior Al-Qaeda suspect Abu Anas al-Libi off the streets of Tripoli and whisking him away to a warship.
Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdelaziz said Zeidan had been released a number of hours after being seized at his hotel in Tripoli before dawn by former rebel militiamen.
“He has been freed but we have no details so far on the circumstances of his release,” Abdelaziz told AFP.
Government spokesman Mohamed Kaabar told the state LANA news agency that the premier had been “freed, not released.” He did not elaborate.
Moments before news broke of Zeidan’s release, Deputy Prime Minister Al-Seddik Abdelkarim had vowed that the government would not give into the demands of the perpetrators of a “criminal act”.
“The government will not give in to blackmail by anyone,” he said.
An earlier government statement said Zeidan had been taken “to an unknown destination for unknown reasons by a group” of men believed to be former rebels.
The Operations Cell of Libyan Revolutionaries, comprising former rebels and which had roundly denounced Libi’s abduction and blamed Zeidan’s government for it, said it had “arrested” Zeidan under orders from the public prosecutor.
But the cabinet said on its Facebook page that ministers were “unaware of immunity being lifted or of any arrest warrant” for the premier.
Later, another group of ex-rebels, the Brigade for the Fight against Crime, said it was holding Zeidan, according to the official LANA news agency.
Thursday’s government statement said it suspected both the Operations Cell of Libyan Revolutionaries and the Brigade for the Fight against Crime of being behind the raid that netted Zeidan.
The two groups loosely fall under the control of the defense and interior ministries but largely operate autonomously.
Two years after the revolution that toppled Kadhafi, Libya’s new authorities are struggling to rein in tribal militias and groups of former rebels.
A country awash with weapons
Many Libyans blame political rivalries for the problems plaguing a country awash with militias and weaponry left over from the 2011 rebellion.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki, travelling with Secretary of State John Kerry in Brunei, said Thursday Washington was seeking more information on Zeidan’s abduction.
“We are looking into these reports and we are in close touch with senior U.S. and Libyan officials on the ground,” she told reporters.
“We are working to determine more details. Our embassy staff is safe in Tripoli. We have no further details at this time.”
Also in Brunei, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the abduction of Zeidan and said he hoped that reports of his release were true.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague as well as NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen had both earlier issued calls for Zeidan to be freed immediately.
Zeidan, who was named prime minister a year ago, had on Tuesday condemned the U.S. capture of Libi in Tripoli and insisted that all Libyans should be tried on home soil.
The General National Congress, Libya’s highest political authority, has demanded that Washington “immediately” hand back Libi, claiming his capture was a flagrant violation of Libyan sovereignty.
Libi — real name Nazih Abdul Hamed al-Raghie — was on the FBI’s most wanted list with a $5 million bounty on his head for his alleged role in the 1998 twin bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
He is reportedly being held aboard a U.S. Navy ship in the Mediterranean.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Tuesday Libi was involved in plots that killed hundreds of people and would be brought to justice.
Public anger in Libya is growing as widespread violence, including political assassinations, proliferates — particularly in the east of the country.
A number of foreign missions have come under attack in Tripoli and in the eastern city of Benghazi.
On September 11, 2012, four Americans, including the ambassador, were killed when militants swarmed into the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, cradle of the 2011 revolution.