Premier's brief "arrest" highlights anarchy in Libya

Reuters

* Prime minister seized at dawn by gunmen, held for sixhours

* Former rebels blame Zeidan for U.S. capture of al Qaedasuspect

* Libya's government struggles to contain rival militias

By Ghaith Shennib and Ulf Laessing

TRIPOLI, Oct 10 (Reuters) - Libyan gunmen on the governmentpayroll seized the prime minister in his nightshirt on Thursdayand held him for several hours, in a new manifestation of theanarchy that has followed the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

The militia justified its bloodless dawn raid on the luxuryhotel where Ali Zeidan lives under notionally tight security bysaying he should be investigated for aiding U.S. forces in theircapture in Tripoli on Saturday of a Libyan al Qaeda suspect.

But the liberal former diplomat has no shortage of criticsamong Islamist and other leaders for his failure to resolvestrikes that have paralysed oil exports or to impose order sincehe was elected premier a year ago by the interim legislature.

A morning of negotiations while Zeidan was held at anInterior Ministry office by a group employed by the state toprovide security in Tripoli ended with him being freed unharmedand then pointedly avoiding criticism of his erstwhile captors.

He called for "wisdom" and national unity and praised formeranti-Gaddafi rebel groups for helping secure his release.Underlining the sense of chaos generated by such forces, stillunder arms two years after Gaddafi fell, members of the militiawhich seized Zeidan tried to deny their group's involvement.

"His kidnapping clearly indicates that his government is notcohesive, and that not only is his government not in control ofthe country, but that he is not in control of his government,"said Geoff Porter of North Africa Risk consulting.

World oil prices rose more than 1 percent on speculationthat Libyan crude experts would not quickly return to normalafter weeks of disruption. Able to supply about 2 percent ofworld demand, and also a big supplier of gas to Europe, Libya'ssix million people can look forward to considerable prosperity,but rivalries over control of resources has hampered investment.

SECURITY VACUUM

The killing 13 months ago of the U.S. ambassador during anIslamist attack on Washington's consulate in Benghazi drew worldattention to Libya's problems. But daily confrontations,including sieges in recent months of government ministries andoil installations, have posed greater problems for its rulers.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Zeidan's abductionshowed the need to built the capacity of the Libyan state, whoseformal armed forces, made up of ex-Gaddafi troops and some ofhis enemies, have proven no match for mobile squads of gunmenriding pickup trucks bristling with heavy weaponry.

In France, which took a lead in backing the 2011 uprising,President Francois Hollande said: "We already had great concernsabout the situation in Libya and what happened to the primeminister has reinforced those worries."

Hollande sent French troops into Mali early this year toconfront an Islamist revolt in its former colony that was fed byarms and fighters from Libya. He said on Thursday Paris wasready to increase cooperation with the Libyan authorities toprevent it being a haven for militants. "We must be there tocooperate with Libya to put an end to these groups," he said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he had calledZeidan to offer further support to stabilise Libya.

Libyans, especially from the restive east, far from Tripoli,formed a significant component of al Qaeda and other fighterswhile Gaddafi was in power. Some benefited from asylum in theWest as opponents of Gaddafi. Some, too, were sent back to facetorture in his jails after he made peace with the West.

The fall of the veteran ruler, who was killed in fighting onOct. 20, 2011, encouraged some radical Islamists to return home,while others emerged from prison.

Some of these are now cooperating with other groups inAfrica, worrying Western powers who see an increasing Islamistthreat, from Nigeria in the West, through the Sahara desert, tothe likes of Somalia's al Shabaab in the east - the group behinda bloody attack on a shopping mall in Kenya last month.

ISLAMIST ANGER

The incident, which follows days of Islamist anger at theU.S. raid which snatched al Qaeda suspect Abu Anas al-Liby, alsohighlighted the dilemmas facing Libya's government in relationswith the United States and other Western powers which providedthe air power that helped them end Gaddafi's 42-year rule.

Zeidan, who lived in exile in Geneva after defecting fromGaddafi's diplomatic service three decades ago, had expressedsurprise and annoyance about the U.S. operation - distancinghimself as Islamists vowed reprisals against U.S. interests.

But that failed to convince his critics, who said they tookZeidan into custody because Kerry had said the Libya governmenthad been informed of the mission which seized Liby outside hishouse and flew him to a U.S. warship for questioning.

Zeidan made no mention of the issue after his release.

The group which bustled him from the seafront CorinthiaHotel, a heavily guarded complex housing diplomats and seniorgovernment officials, was the Operations Room of Libya'sRevolutionaries, which has criticised Zeidan in recent weeks.

Though photographs circulating on social media showed Zeidanapparently at ease with his smiling captors on Thursday, theOperations Room's spokesman, Abdulhakim Belazzi, had last weeklaunched a bitter tirade about the prime minister on television.

"What have you done for Libya?" he shouted. "You tookcontrol at a time when Libya was moving forward and developing.

"Now you've destroyed everything."

A visit by Zeidan last week to neighbouring Egypt, where theMuslim Brotherhood government was ousted by the army in July,also angered Libyan Islamists who accused the prime minister ofendorsing the overthrow of President Mohamed Mursi.

Zeidan was among those who persuaded French and Britishleaders to support the 2011 revolt against Gaddafi. Last month,on a visit to London, he appealed for more Western support torein in the former rebels.

After the Arab Spring revolts that ousted several autocraticleaders, Libya's transition has been one of the messiest.

It still has no new constitution, Zeidan faces a possiblevote of no confidence and its transitional assembly, the GeneralNational Congress, is paralysed by divisions between the secularNational Forces Alliance and the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Is this a wake up call?" asked one Western diplomat. "Willit frighten the political class into understanding that theycan't carry on squabbling and that they have to work together?"

View Comments (16)