WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) – Libya’s state news agency says Prime Minister Ali Zidan, who was abducted by gunmen before dawn Thursday from a Tripoli hotel where he resides, has now been freed.
The abduction appeared to be in retaliation for the U.S. special forces’ raid over the weekend that seized a Libyan al Qaeda suspect from the streets of the capital, but one of the myriad militias operating in the country — with apparent links to Libyan state security services — said he was not kidnapped, but arrested as part of an ongoing investigation into fraud and corruption.
Regardless of whether Zidan’s abduction was a kidnap by armed militants, or a pseudo-coup reflecting the will of the Libyan people, it showed clearly the weakness of Libya’s central government which has, for all intents and purposes, been held hostage by the powerful militias that filled the power vacuum left in the country after the fall of dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
Many of the militias are made up of Islamic militants, including some which formed formal or informal partnerships with the interim government to provide security in areas where the government itself has had virtually no control on the ground since Qaddafi’s ouster and murder in 2011.
A group of the militias — including some of the most powerful Islamic fundamentalist groups operating in the country’s lawless east, around Benghazi — issued a statement earlier this week vowing to avenge the U.S. capture of the alleged senior al Qaeda operative known as Abu Anas al-Libi, and accusing Zidan’s government of colluding in or allowing the raid.
One of the groups behind the threat the powerful Ansar al-Sharia, which is believed to have been directly involved in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on U.S. diplomatic posts in Benghazi which left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead.
The fact that Zidan’s seizure was depicted by various sources as either an arrest or an abduction is a clear reflection of how interwoven militias are in Libya’s fragmented power structure.
Qaddafi’s ouster left the country’s police and army in disarray, and many of the militias who fought in the Arab Spring-inspired uprising to topple him were enlisted to serve in state security agencies, though their loyalty has generally remained more to their own commanders than to government officials, and the groups have often intimidated or threatened officials.
A statement on the government’s official website said Zidan was taken at dawn 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 Thursday morning, headed by Zidan’s deputy, Abdel-Salam al-Qadi.
Abdel-Moneim al-Hour, an official with the Anti-Crime Committee, told The Associated Press that Zidan had been “arrested” on accusations of harming state security and corruption. The purported arrest stemmed from an investigation into fraud and corruption launched in June, and was not related to al-Libi’s detention by U.S. forces, according to the group.
The public prosecutor’s office, however, denied that any arrest warrant for Zidan had been issued.
A government official said gunmen broke into the luxury hotel in downtown Tripoli where Zidan 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 Thursday on social networking sites purportedly shows Zidan being led from his hotel in Tripoli by two young men, one of them bearded, holding him from both arms. The prime minister is frowning and looking disheveled. The photo also shows the arm of a third man resting on Zidan’s left shoulder.
Hours after the abduction, the streets of Tripoli appeared normal, with the usual bustle of the morning rush hour traffic.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry in Brunei, said, “We are looking into these reports and we are in close touch with senior U.S. 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 Qaida suspect seized by the Americans. U.S. officials said al-Libi was immediately taken out of the country after the raid Saturday in Tripoli and is now being held on a U.S. warship.
On Tuesday, Zidan said the Libyan government had requested that Washington allow al-Libi’s family to establish contact with him. Zidan insisted that Libyan citizens should be tried in their homeland if they are accused of crimes, stressing that “Libya does not surrender its sons.”
Al-Libi is alleged to be a senior al Qaeda member and is wanted by the United States in connection to the bombing of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, with a $5 million bounty on his head.
Immediately after the raid, the Libyan government issued a statement saying it was carried out without its knowledge and asking Washington for “clarifications”about the operation.
“The U.S. was very helpful to Libya during the evolution and the relations should not be affected by an incident, even if it is a serious one,” Zidan said at a press conference in Tripoli.
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