GUNMEN seized the Libyan prime minister in a pre-dawn raid yesterday and held him captive for several hours.
Premier Ali Zeidan was still in his nightshirt when the gunmen, members of a militia paid by the state to guard Tripoli, raided the hotel where he lives.
They claimed Mr Zeidan should be subject to an official investigation for aiding United States forces to capture al-Qaeda suspect Anas al-Liby in the capital on Saturday.
Mr Zeidan has already been criticised by Islamists and other factions for failing to resolve strikes which have paralysed oil exports. He was elected PM a year ago by an interim parliament, but has failed to impose state control on a fractured country.
He was freed from the interior ministry office where he was being held after hours of negotiations. His release came after pro-government militias threatened to level militia bases unless he was freed before midday.
Mr Zeidan later chaired a televised cabinet meeting in which he thanked those who helped free him.
“We hope this matter will be treated with wisdom and rationality, far from tension,” he said. “There are many things that need dealing with.”
He then praised former rebel groups – who fought to overthrow Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi – for helping secure his release.
The incident raises alarm over the power militias still hold in Libya. They originated in informal “revolutionary” brigades who fought Gaddafi’s forces in the 2011 revolt. Since his fall and death, they have resisted efforts to disarm them, multiplied in number and mushroomed in size. With the regular police and army weak and in disarray, the government has had to enlist militias to act as security forces. But they often follow their own agendas and commanders rather than the state, and many have hard-line Islamic ideologies sympathetic to al-Qaeda. They frequently lash out at officials to get their way. Last month, the son of the defence minister was abducted, and there are frequent killings of security officials who cross militiamen.
The killing 13 months ago of ambassador Chris Stevens during an Islamist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi drew world attention to Libya’s problems. US secretary of state John Kerry said Mr Zeidan’s abduction showed the need to build-up the Libyan state, whose armed forces have proven no match for mobile squads of gunmen riding pick-ups bristling with heavy weaponry.
In France, which took a lead in backing the 2011 uprising, President François Hollande said: “We already had great concerns about Libya and what happened to the prime minister has reinforced those worries.”
He said Paris was ready to increase co-operation with the Libyan authorities to prevent it being a haven for militants. “We must be there to co-operate with Libya to put an end to these groups,” he said.
Libyans, especially from the restive east, have always formed a significant component of al-Qaeda and other fighters.
Some benefited from asylum in the West as opponents of Gaddafi. Some were sent back to face torture in his jails after he made peace with the West.
The fall of the veteran ruler, who was killed on 20 October, 2011, encouraged some Islamists to return home, while others emerged from prison.
Some of these are now co-operating with other groups in Africa, worrying western powers who see an increasing Islamist threat, from Nigeria in the west, to Somalia’ in the east. Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab was behind the bloody on a mall in Kenya last month which left 67 dead.