By Ghaith Shennib and Ulf Laessing
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya's prime minister was seized and held for several hours on Thursday by former rebel militiamen angry at the weekend capture by U.S. special forces of a Libyan al Qaeda suspect in Tripoli.
Ali Zeidan was freed unharmed but the incident underlined the anarchy prevailing in the oil-rich North African state, two years after the Western-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
"Libyans need wisdom ... not escalation ... to deal with this situation," he told his cabinet in remarks broadcast on television after his six-hour ordeal in the capital.
Gunmen associated with the fragmented Libyan security apparatus had hauled him at dawn from the luxury hotel where he lives under heavy guard. Political sources said the group soon relented in the face of pressure from officials and freed him.
Zeidan, in his televised remarks to the cabinet, thanked some militia who had helped negotiate his freedom and urged them to join the state's military forces. That is a plea that Libyan leaders have been making since Gaddafi fell, to little effect. Armed bands see little gain in giving up their guns and freedom.
Zeidan had distanced his government from U.S. assertions it had cooperated in Saturday's capture of Abu Anas al-Liby, wanted for the al Qaeda bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya in 1998.
But the group which seized the premier appeared to hold him responsible for helping Washington's operation.
His brief detention was the latest of many incidents that demonstrate Libya's post-Gaddafi turmoil. Its vulnerable central government and nascent armed forces are struggling to contain rival tribal militias and Islamist militants who control large parts of the country.
Geoff Porter of North Africa Risk consulting said: "His kidnapping clearly indicates that his government is not cohesive, and that not only is his government not in control of the country, but that he is not in control of his government."
The militia, which was hired by the government to provide security in Tripoli, said it had "arrested" Zeidan after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Libya had a role in the capture of Liby, whose real name is Nazih al-Ragye.
"His arrest comes after ... (Kerry) said the Libyan government was aware of the operation," a spokesman for the group, known as the Operations Room of Libya's Revolutionaries, told Reuters. Facing criticism from other groups, the spokesman later denied that the Operations Room was involved.
Zeidan was elected by the interim legislature a year ago next week, when he pledged to bring the rule of law to a country where the U.S. ambassador had been killed the previous month in an attack on Washington's consulate in Benghazi.
Zeidan, who lived in exile in Geneva, was among those who persuaded French and British leaders to support the 2011 revolt against Gaddafi. Last month, on a visit to London, he appealed for more Western support to rein in the former rebels.
Before his release, an official in the Interior Ministry anti-crime department told the state news agency that Zeidan, a former diplomat and exile opposition activist against Gaddafi, was being held there and was being treated well.
Photographs circulating on social media in Libya showed the prime minister, who is in his early 60s, sitting in a brown robe chatting on a couch to smiling militiamen.
After the Arab Spring revolts that ousted several autocratic leaders, Libya's transition has been one of the messiest.
It still has no new constitution, Zeidan faces a possible vote of no confidence and its transitional assembly, the General National Congress, is paralysed by divisions between the secular National Forces Alliance and the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Is this a wake up call?" asked one Western diplomat. "Will it frighten the political class into understanding that they can't carry on squabbling and that they have to work together?"
The kidnapping, however brief, raised the stakes in the unruly OPEC nation, where the regional factions are also seeking control over its oil wealth, which provides Libya with the vast bulk of government revenues.
Zeidan, viewed as a liberal opposed to radical Islamists, has struggled to fulfil a promise to clean up rival militias made up of former rebels which often clash on the streets of Tripoli and the eastern oil hub of Benghazi, occupying government buildings and imposing their will through force.
Libya's defence minister was dismissed in June after militias besieged two ministries. Another group of armed protesters has taken over oil ports in the east for the last two months, slashing the country's crude output by half.
A mix of striking workers, militias and political activists have blocked Libya's oilfields and ports for more than two months, according to Oil Minister Abdelbari Arusi, resulting in over $5 billion of lost revenues.
He said on October 2 that oil exports could return to full capacity in days once the strikes ended.
Oil companies have become more wary of North Africa after an attack in January on a gas plant across the border in Algeria.
Liby is being interrogated on a U.S. warship in the Mediterranean and is likely to be tried in the United States.
Zeidan said on Tuesday Libyans accused of crimes should be tried at home, but that the raid to capture Liby would not harm U.S. ties - trying to preserve relations with a major ally without provoking a backlash from Islamist militants.
But the raid angered militant groups, including one blamed for the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September 2012. Some called for revenge attacks on strategic targets including gas export pipelines, planes and ships, as well as for the kidnappings of Americans in the capital.