Beholden to the power of lawless militias in an increasingly anarchic country, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was kidnapped by gunmen in a pre-dawn raid at a luxury hotel in Tripoli and then freed a few hours later.
In a televised appearance after his release Thursday, Mr. Zeidan refused to say which of Libya's many militias had captured him – a sign of the rising strength of the heavily armed gangs that have replaced the army and police as the ultimate authority in Libya since the 2011 military campaign led by Western nations including Canada.
Most reports suggested that Mr. Zeidan was abducted or arrested by a militia that is nominally loyal to the government and was supposed to be providing security in the capital. But the government has no real control over the militias, which refused to give up their weapons after the Western-backed overthrow of ex-dictator Moammar Gadhafi two years ago.
The militias have brought the Libyan government to a state of paralysis. Armed groups, some with hardline Islamist leanings, have attacked diplomats, stormed embassy compounds, demolished the shrines of religious moderates, blockaded ports, disrupted oil shipments, gained control of entire districts in the biggest cities, stalled the adoption of a new constitution, and created a safe haven for terrorists in eastern and southern Libya.
Mr. Zeidan was snatched by militia fighters at about 4 a.m. on Thursday at the Corinthia hotel on Tripoli's seafront, after the hotel was surrounded by an estimated 150 gunmen in pickup trucks.
Mr. Zeidan, a former diplomat in the Gadhafi regime who defected in 1980 and spent three decades as an opposition leader in exile, was a key figure in helping win diplomatic recognition for the Libyan rebels in 2011.
He was elected prime minister in 2012, and is seen as a pro-Western moderate, leading a shaky government coalition of secular and Islamist politicians.
He had moved into the heavily guarded luxury Corinthia last year because it was considered safer than his own office, which was often under siege by protesters. In recent months, the hotel too became a target: in one incident a rocket was fired towards the hotel, missing it and hitting a nearby building instead.
After the Prime Minister was grabbed by the gunmen on Thursday, a photo broadcast on Libyan television showed him looking dishevelled and bewildered, apparently in night clothes, without his usual spectacles. The government issued a statement saying he had been "taken to an unknown destination for unknown reasons."
About seven hours later, another militia intervened and he was released, but details were murky. In a televised meeting with his cabinet ministers later, Mr. Zeidan praised the "real revolutionaries" who had helped free him, but gave no information on their identity or that of the kidnappers.
Some reports suggested he was kidnapped because the gunmen were angry at a U.S. commando raid last Saturday that captured a suspected al-Qaeda terrorist, Abu Anas al-Libi, who was living openly in Tripoli.
The government denied accusations that it had been informed about the U.S. raid in advance.
The United States welcomed the news of Mr. Zeidan's release. "Libyans did not risk their lives in their 2011 revolution to tolerate a return to thuggery," Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.
"There can be no place for this kind of violence in the new Libya."
Thuggery, however, has become the norm in today's Libya, with many militias routinely destroying religious shrines, extorting money, holding prisoners without trial, and using intimidation to force government departments to do their bidding. The government has failed to create a sufficiently strong army or police force to replace the militias.
Because of the lawlessness, Libya has emerged as a refuge for Islamist rebels from Mali and other countries. The government has failed to gain control of the vast arsenal of Gadhafi-era weaponry, allowing thousands of guns and missiles to be smuggled to fighters in Egypt, Syria, Gaza and Mali.