TRIPOLI: Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was seized by gunmen Thursday and held for several hours before being freed, in the latest example of the lawlessness prevailing since Moammar Gadhafi’s overthrow.
The premier appeared in good health when he arrived at government headquarters after his ordeal at the hands of former rebel militiamen, waving to waiting well-wishers as he climbed out of an armored car.
“I hope this problem will be resolved with reason and wisdom” and without any “escalation,” Zeidan said later in comments broadcast by state television as he left a Cabinet meeting.
The predawn seizure of Zeidan came five days after U.S. commandos embarrassed and angered the government by capturing senior Al-Qaeda suspect Abu Anas al-Libi off the streets of Tripoli and whisking him away to a warship in the Mediterranean.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Abdelaziz said Zeidan had been freed a number of hours after he was seized before dawn at his Tripoli hotel.
“He has been freed but we have no details so far on the circumstances of his release,” Abdelaziz told AFP.
Witnesses said Zeidan was held at a police station south of the capital, and that his captors released him after armed residents surrounded the building and demanded he be let go.
Government spokesman Mohammad Kaabar told state news agency LANA Zeidan had been “freed, not released,” without elaborating.
An employee at the hotel – where Zeidan had taken up residence for security reasons – told AFP a “large number of armed men” had entered the building but that the staff did not know what was happening.
A government statement said Zeidan had been taken “to an unknown destination for unknown reasons by a group” of men believed to be former rebels.
Moments before news broke that Zeidan had been freed, Deputy Prime Minister Al-Seddik Abdelkarim 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.
After being freed, Zeidan met with his ministers and members of the General National Congress – Libya’s highest political authority.
Ministers had already met in his absence earlier in the day for an emergency session.
The Operations Cell of Libyan Revolutionaries, former rebels who had roundly denounced Libi’s abduction and blamed Zeidan’s government for it, said it had “arrested” the premier 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 him.
Later, the Brigade for the Fight against Crime, a police division made up of former rebels, said it was holding Zeidan, according to the official LANA news agency.
The government said it suspected both groups of being behind the abduction.
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 Gadhafi, Libya’s new authorities are still struggling to rein in tribal militias and groups of former rebels.
Many Libyans blame political rivalries for the problems plaguing a country awash with militias and weaponry left over from the 2011 NATO-backed rebellion.
Zeidan, who was named prime minister a year ago, had Tuesday condemned the U.S. capture of Libi in Tripoli and insisted that all Libyans should be tried on home soil.
The GNC has demanded that Washington “immediately” hand Libi back, claiming his capture was a flagrant violation of Libyan sovereignty.
Libi – whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamad 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 U.S. embassies in East Africa.
He is reportedly being held aboard a U.S. Navy ship in the Mediterranean.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry denounced Zeidan’s abduction as “thuggery,” while U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned it “in the strongest possible terms.”
Britain, which along with France had led the creation of a NATO no-fly zone in Libya at the start of the uprising, had earlier condemned the kidnapping and called for Zeidan’s “immediate release.”
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, the cradle of the 2011 revolution.
On Sept. 11, 2012, four Americans, including the ambassador, were killed when militants swarmed into the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.