TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — The abduction was brief but still audacious: Gunmen from one of Libya's many militias stormed a hotel where the prime minister has a residence and held him for several hours Thursday — apparently in retaliation for his government's alleged collusion with the U.S. in a raid last weekend that captured an al-Qaida suspect.
The brazen seizure of Prime Minister Ali Zidan heightened the alarm over the power of unruly militias that virtually hold the weak central government hostage. Many of the militias include Islamic militants and have ideologies similar to al-Qaida's. The armed bands regularly use violence to intimidate officials to sway policies, gunning down security officials and kidnapping their relatives.
At the same time, the state relies on militias to act as security forces, since the police and military remain in disarray after dictator Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown and killed in 2011. The militias are rooted in the brigades that fought in the uprising and are often referred to as "revolutionaries."
Many militias are paid by the Defense or Interior ministries — which are in charge of the military and police respectively — although the ministries are still unable to control them.
Not only was Zidan abducted by militiamen who officially work in a state body, it took other militias to rescue him by storming the site where he was held in the capital.
"The abduction is like the shock that awakened Libyans. Facts on the ground now are clearer than never before: Libya is ruled by militias," said prominent rights campaigner Hassan al-Amin.
Zidan's abduction came before dawn Thursday, when about 150 gunmen in pickup trucks stormed the luxury Corinthia Hotel in downtown Tripoli, witnesses told The Associated Press. They swarmed into the hobby and some charged up to Zidan's residence on the 21st floor.
The gunmen scuffled with Zidan's guards before they seized him and led him out at around 5:15 a.m., said the witnesses, speaking on condition of anonymity because they feared for their own safety. They said Zidan offered no resistance.
In the afternoon, government spokesman Mohammed Kaabar told the LANA news agency that Zidan had been "set free."
A militia commander affiliated with the Interior Ministry said his fighters, along with armed groups from two Tripoli districts, Souq Jomaa and Tajoura, stormed the house where Zidan was being held, exchanged fire with the captors, and rescued him.
"He is now safe in a safe place," said Haitham al-Tajouri, commander of the Reinforcement Force, in an interview with Al-Ahrar TV.
Zidan later appeared at a Cabinet session that was broadcast live. He thanked those who helped free him but gave no details and avoided blaming those behind the abduction.
"We hope this matter will be treated with wisdom and rationality, far from tension," he said. "There are many things that need dealing with."
The abduction was carried out by two state-affiliated militia groups, the Revolutionaries Operation Room and the Anti-Crime Department. They put out statements saying they had "arrested" Zidan on accusations of harming state security and corruption. The public prosecutor's office said it had issued no such warrant.
The motive for the abduction was not immediately known, but it came after many militias and Islamic militants expressed outrage over the U.S. Delta Force raid Saturday that seized al-Qaida suspect Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known by his alias Abu Anas al-Libi, from the street outside his home in Tripoli.
Al-Libi is alleged to be a senior al-Qaida member and is wanted by the U.S. in connection with the 1998 bombings of its embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, with a $5 million bounty on his head. U.S. officials say he is now being held on an U.S. warship.
Several militia groups angrily accused Zidan's government of colluding with the U.S. in the operation and allowing foreigners to seize a Libyan on its own soil.
The Libyan government said the al-Libi raid was carried out without its knowledge. But its response has been mild. It asked Washington for "clarifications" about the raid.
Some militiamen are convinced Zidan allowed the raid.
"I can't imagine why everyone is standing by Zidan, who is a traitor who handed a Libyan civilian over to the Americans," said Jamal al-Haji, who belongs to a militia-linked group in Tripoli.
On Tuesday, Zidan said the Libyan government had requested that Washington allow al-Libi's family to establish contact with him. Zidan insisted that Libyan citizens should be tried in their homeland if they are accused of crimes.
He was abducted hours after meeting Wednesday evening with al-Libi's family.
Zidan said relations with Washington, a key ally, would not be affected.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. condemned Zidan's kidnapping. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was pleased to hear of Zidan's release and that Washington was helping the Libyan government build its security capacities.
"Libyans did not risk their lives in the 2011 revolution to tolerate a return to thuggery," he said in a statement.
The apparent backlash against the government over the al-Libi raid could make Tripoli even more wary of allowing Washington to go after other wanted militants on Libyan soil. In particular, the U.S. has sought the arrest of militants behind the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on its consulate in Benghazi that killed the ambassador and three other Americans. Some of the suspects live openly in the eastern city, but the state is powerless to pursue them.
The two militia groups who said they were involved in Zidan's abduction were originally formed by Nouri Boushameen, the head of the National Congress, or parliament, with the intent of providing security in the capital.
Boushameen sought to distance himself from the abduction, telling a news conference before Zidan's release that any members of the groups involved would be punished. He said he visited Zidan in captivity and told him he was working for his release.
Zidan and members of his government have increasingly spoken of trying to rein in militias, to little effect. The groups have lashed out at the government before and regularly defy its authority.
Just last month, militiamen abducted the son of the defense minister in a move seen as aimed at preventing any action against the groups. Several weeks ago, the militia of al-Tajouri, which rescued Zidan, seized the daughter of the Gadhafi-era intelligence chief and held her briefly. Earlier this year, militiamen besieged government buildings for days to pressure lawmakers to adopt a law banning Gadhafi-era politicians from holding any posts.
Since Gadhafi's ouster and death, the groups have grown and multiplied. Many tout themselves as defending the "revolution's goals," but often act to protect fiefdoms they have carved out and are accused of blackmailing or intimidating citizens.
Others have Islamic extremist ideologies and are suspected of links to al-Qaida and other militant groups across North Africa and into Egypt.