TRIPOLI, (Reuters) – When news broke at dawn yesterday that Libya’s prime minister had been seized by gunmen from his Tripoli hotel, it looked as if Islamist militants might have pulled off a spectacular and potentially bloody coup.
In the end, it turned out the gunmen were in the pay of his own government and the premier was back at work by lunchtime.
Still, the strained smiles for the cameras could not disguise the anarchy revealed by what his captors called an “arrest” and his government described as a “kidnap”.
Two years after a revolt backed by Western air power toppled Muammar Gaddafi, rival gangs of superannuated rebels and tribal militias are the real arbiters of power in the face of a government and armed forces unable to defend themselves, let alone the oilfields that should be making Libya’s fortune.
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s suite at the Corinthia Hotel, with its views of the Mediterranean, should have been about the safest place in Tripoli. The luxury seafront tower is home not just to the premier but also foreign embassies and missions, which have reinforced their own protection since the killing a year ago of the U.S. ambassador to Libya by Islamist militants.
But in the early hours of yesterday, about 15 heavily armed men showed up at the hotel with a paper they claimed was a warrant for Zeidan’s arrest. It was enough to get the men though two checkpoints and guards to the premier’s room.
No shots were fired and gunmen hustled Zeidan, still dressed in his nightshirt, out of the hotel. A former diplomat and long-time exile dissident against Gaddafi, Zeidan was later seen in photographs frowning, his shirt undone, as men in civilian clothes pressed closely around him.
Government officials were quick to say the Libyan premier had been kidnapped. But guards at the hotel talked of an “arrest” and indicated the men who snatched Zeidan may have been former rebel fighters working for the government.
Certainly, trouble was not unexpected. Libyan Islamist militants had warned of revenge attacks after a U.S. raid to capture an al Qaeda suspect in Tripoli just days earlier.