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Libyan PM’s abduction raises disturbing questions

The armed kidnapping of Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan from a Tripoli hotel on Thursday was brazen. Even after his release, questions remain about the identity and motives of his abductors.


Looking tired and drawn after his extraordinary kidnapping ordeal on Thursday, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan called for “wisdom and rationality” shortly after he was freed.

“We hope this matter will be treated with wisdom and rationality, far from tension,'' said Zeidan during a televised cabinet meeting on Thursday afternoon – only hours after he was abducted by armed men from a Tripoli hotel around dawn and briefly held in an undisclosed location.

“Even though Libyans and foreigners living in Tripoli know that Libya is a very unstable country, flooded with weapons and armed men, it’s still very surprising to see that it’s possible to seize the prime minister,” said Marine Casalis, FRANCE 24’s Libya correspondent.

The abduction – as mysterious as Zeidan’s subsequent release - underscored the perilous security in the North African nation. The government has only fragile control of numerous militia groups, two years after the fall of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Who did it – and why?

The lack of security, order and coherence was evident shortly after the news broke of Zeidan’s abduction from the Corinthia Hotel, where he currently resides. 

The Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room, a militia loosely allied to the government, initially said the abduction was in retaliation for the Libyan government allegedly having permitted US special forces onto Libyan territory to capture al Qaeda suspect Abu Anas al-Libi over the weekend.

The group later said it had arrested Zeidan following an order from the prosecutor-general.

But in an interview with FRANCE 24, Libyan Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani described the morning’s events as an “abduction”.

By evening, members of the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room were categorically denying any involvement with the abduction.

“Hundred percent we are denying all this,” said member Adel al-Ghriani in an interview with the FRANCE 24 Debate show. “We straightaway say we are not responsible.” He blamed “old regime Gaddafi gangsters” … “doing whatever to bring Gaddafi back to power”.

Responding to Ghriani’s statement, Waheed Burshan, a former member of the NTC (National Transitional Council), said, “It shows us how these armed groups see themselves and their authority and their impact on the government.” He added that some of Libya’s militias believe “they have the mandate to dictate to the prime minister”.

A rescue, not a release

While Zeidan has a political mandate to govern Libya following the widely hailed 2012 general election, the country lacks the basic security to ensure his writ is followed across the oil-rich nation.

His abduction from a landmark seaside hotel on Thursday morning came shortly after a convoy of cars pulled up outside the premises and more than 100 armed men stormed the hotel, a Corinthia Hotel security guard told reporters.

“How could a group of people come to where the prime minister is staying and pick him up?” asked Burshan. “Where are his guards? Where is his protection?”

There were also questions surrounding Zeidan’s rescue, with the prime minister providing few details on how he was freed.

According to a Libyan government spokesman, Zeidan was rescued by security forces and not released by his captors following negotiations.

In his televised remarks to the Libyan Cabinet, Zeidan hinted that he was freed by security officials. “I thank the army and the police and I salute the revolutionaries who resolved this matter,” said the prime minister, speaking in Arabic.

His statement implied that in addition to the army and police, a militia linked to the government may also have been involved in the rescue.

Legal militias above the law

With the regular police forces and army weak and in disarray, the government has had to enlist some militias to act as security forces. According to Casalis, the militias often remain loyal to their own agendas.

“After the [2011] revolution, the Libyan authorities integrated brigades as a whole and these brigades basically retained their structures. So the men don’t obey the state, they obey their leaders,” said Casalis. “You may have legal militias, but even these militias may not respect the legitimacy of the state and the government.”

Two years after the fall of Gaddafi, the state is struggling to control armed groups that have seized control of Libya’s oil infrastructure, as well as the growing tide of Islamist militants.

“The Islamists have infiltrated all the security forces,” said Jason Pack, president of and a researcher at Cambridge University. He said that during the 2011 uprising, “Islamists were the top-level commanders, they were the only ones with military training. Essentially, they have infiltrated the power structure.”

A symbolic abduction

Zeidan's abduction came only days after Islamic militants and militias expressed outrage over a weekend raid by US special forces that resulted in the seizure of al Qaeda suspect Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, also known as Abu Anas al-Libi.

“Of course it’s linked,” said Jason Pack, president of and a researcher at Cambridge University. “There’s a great symbolism here. This happened in the Corinthia Hotel, where Western diplomats and businessmen tend to stay. The message is clear: we’re upset you [the US] violated the sovereignty of our country. We’re going to abduct someone you think is important, someone who’s supposedly seen as a Western stooge.”

The Libyan government has denied that it had any prior knowledge of the US raid but this has failed to reassure many Libyans.

On Wednesday, Zeidan met with Libi’s family and assured them that his government would do everything to ensure his legal rights were protected. But the Libyan prime minister has also noted that relations with Washington, a key ally of his government, would not be affected.


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