TRIPOLI – Gunmen seized Prime Minister Ali Zeidan from a Tripoli hotel Thursday, amid conflicting reports over whether he was formally arrested or abducted by lawless former rebels who helped topple dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
The pre-dawn seizure of Zeidan comes five days after US 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.
A source in the premier’s office said Zeidan had been taken by gunmen from Tripoli’s Corinthia Hotel, where he resides. A hotel employee confirmed a pre-dawn raid by “a large number of armed men”.
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.
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 of the public prosecutor.
The group, which in principle reports to the defence and interior ministries, said on Facebook it had seized Zeidan “on the prosecutor’s orders”.
It said he was detained for “crimes and offences prejudicial to the state” and its security.
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.
The brigade added that Zeidan “will be well-treated”, the agency reported.
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.
Both groups loosely fall under the control of the defence 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 revolution.
Zeidan is himself a former rebel who was instrumental in bringing about the downfall of Kadhafi’s regime.
The career diplomat and former rebel-in-exile played a major role in securing Western support for the successful uprising.
US State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki, travelling with Secretary of State John Kerry in Brunei, said Thursday Washington was seeking more information on the incident.
“We are looking into these reports and we are in close touch with senior US 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.”
In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague called for Zeidan to be freed immediately.
“I condemn the abduction of the Libyan prime minister in Tripoli this morning and call for his immediate release,” Hague said in a statement.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen also called for his release, adding that “stability and the rule of law are very important” as Libya seeks to rebuild.
Zeidan, who was named prime minister a year ago, had on Tuesday condemned the US capture of Libi in Tripoli and insisted that all Libyans should be tried on home soil.
The General National Congress 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 (3.7-million-euro) bounty on his head for his alleged role in the 1998 twin bombings of two US embassies in East Africa.
He is reportedly being held aboard a US Navy ship in the Mediterranean.
US 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 US consulate in Benghazi, cradle of the 2011 revolution.