Kidnapped Libyan Prime Minister Freed By Captors

The Libya State News Agency has announced Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has been freed. Earlier it was reported that gunmen kidnapped him from a hotel in Tripoli where he resides. The abduction came amid anger among Libya's powerful Islamic militant groups over the U.S. special forces raid that seized a Libyan al-Qaida suspect.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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And I'm David Greene. Good morning. It would be easy to view the events you're about to hear about as fodder for a far-fetched political drama, but for the fact that we're talking about the fate of a real country. Sometime before dawn this morning, a large group of gunmen kidnapped the prime minister of Libya from a fancy hotel where he's been living. Apparently, no shots were fired as he was taken away. As things were unfolding, we spoke to Libyan freelance journalist Suliman Ali Zway, who was covering the story.

SULIMAN ALI ZWAY: A group of gunmen came into the Corinthia Hotel, which is a luxurious hotel in the capital, Tripoli, where the prime minister stays. They came and took him. So far the government has issued a statement. They suspect two groups of kidnapping him or arresting him.

GREENE: Now, that was earlier. Hours later, the prime minister, Ali Zidan, was freed and returned safely to his office. He then spoke about the ordeal on television, thanking the army and police for their efforts. Now, it's been two years since a U.S.-backed rebellion toppled dictator Muammar Gadhafi in Libya.

We caught up a short while ago with NPR's Cairo bureau chief, Leila Fadel, who covers the region and often reports in Libya. She told us that this morning says a lot about the turmoil enveloping the country, even since Gadhafi was forced from power.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Well, I think it is indicative of the situation in Libya itself. This is a weak government. It has a series of armed militias - one of which seems to have taken the prime minister. And now, the prime minister is released. The government saying he was liberated from his captors, not pointing any fingers, but saying it seemed to have been former rebels or former revolutionaries who fought Moammar Gadhafi.

GREENE: For an armed group to be able to walk into a luxury hotel in downtown Tripoli and remove the prime minister - I mean, that doesn't make it sound like the security situation is all that tight there.

FADEL: Exactly. Right now you have a very weak, weak government. But you have a huge number of these militias that are holdovers from the time that they were fighting Moammar Gadhafi, a huge amount of weapons proliferation, and a government that's unable to really stop these militias. The ones that are suspected of taking the prime minister today are actually allied with the government. The government has been unable to disarm a lot of them. And when they have a problem with the authority - the elected authority in Libya - it's often solved by them coming with guns to deal with it.

GREENE: OK. That sounds very confusing. If a militia group allied with the government would take the prime minister, I know we're still learning a lot and don't know all that much, but any reason why they would want to do that?

FADEL: Well, the most recent situation was that the U.S. forces captured a suspected al-Qaida militant known as Abu Anas al-Libi. And he was taken off the streets of Tripoli. It was hugely embarrassing for the Libyan authorities because Libyan citizens were saying, how can a foreign country come into our country and just take a citizen off the street? And many people expected some type of response, and this may be the response they were expecting.

GREENE: There were some reports suggesting that the prime minister might have known about this U.S. effort that you mentioned, to come in and grab an al-Qaida leader. So you're suggesting that perhaps this group was angry if in their mind the prime minister let this happen.

FADEL: That's right. The Libyan authorities have publicly denied that they were alerted of this operation in advance. But the U.S. says the Libyans did have notice. Many people have blamed the prime minister for allowing it to happen on their soil. And a Libyan revolutionary group, quote-unquote, posted, saying that he was being arrested for endangering the state when he was first taken this morning.

GREENE: OK. We've been speaking to NPR's Cairo bureau chief, Leila Fadel. Thanks a lot, Leila.

FADEL: Thank you.

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