By Ulf Laessing and Ghaith Shennib
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - When news broke at dawn on Thursday 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 Thursday, 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.
When the gunmen first spoke, they linked Zeidan's capture to the arrest of Abu Anas al-Liby, wanted for attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania 15 years ago.
But rather than al Qaeda and Islamist militants, the gunmen were actually former rebel fighters from the Observation Room for Libya's Revolutionaries, a group working for the Interior Ministry and supposedly providing security for the capital.
U-TURN AND RPGs
Within hours, though, the gunmen realized that the seizing of Zeidan had been a mistake and started looking for a way out of the drama, political sources said.
A spokesman at first confirmed the kidnapping but then made a U-turn, denying the group had anything to do with it.
Negotiations began in a flurry of telephone calls. Condemnation came from Washington, Brussels and Moscow.
"I called the head of the group to ask for the prime minister's release," said Nouri Busahmai, head of Libya's interim legislature. "His phone was off so I rang his deputy."
With Islamists and other former rebels venting their anger over the American military raid at the weekend, the Operations Room of Libya Revolutionaries had warned on Monday it would act.
His captors sequestered Zeidan in an Interior Ministry office. He seems to have spent his captivity relatively unscathed. Pictures circulated on Facebook showed him looking comfortable. The captive premier sits on a sofa next to three grinning gunmen. In another picture, he holds a baby.
Soon, though, more gunmen and government soldiers had joined protesters outside the headquarters of the ministry's anti-crime department. Someone fired rocket-propelled grenades in an attempt to pressure his captors to give up the premier.
After about six hours, Zeidan was free. Details of how his release came about were not clear.
Dressed in white shirt and tie, the Libyan prime minister made his way to a meeting with cabinet ministers in an attempt to show that his government was under control.
In televised remarks, he made sure to thank militias who made helped in his release and said, with no lack of understatement: "Libyans need wisdom ... to deal with this situation."
(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Alastair Macdonald/Mark Heinrich)