Libya's Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, centre, addresses a news conference after his release.

Mystery abduction: Ali Zeidan at a news conference after his release. Photo: Reuters

Even hours after the Libyan Prime Minister was kidnapped on Thursday morning, few people knew for sure who had done it or why.

But the mysterious dawn raid on Ali Zeidan's hotel room is a clear demonstration of just how far lawlessness has spread in Libya since the 2011 overthrow of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and just how powerful the country's militias have become.

The gunmen who swept into Zeidan's hotel room at 4am and whisked him to captivity in the Tripoli suburb of Fornaj - only to release him unharmed six hours later - had initially claimed to be part of a militia assigned to protect the country's parliament.

A spokesman for the militia, known as the Operations Room of Libya's Revolutionaries, said Mr Zeidan's ''arrest'' was in response to the government's tacit compliance with the US raid to capture a Libyan al-Qaeda suspect in Tripoli on Saturday.

The group published an announcement on its Facebook page claiming Mr Zeiadan had been arrested on charges related to corruption.

But the Justice Ministry denied issuing an arrest order. And after his release, the militia denied its role in the episode, too.

Mr Zeidan, a human rights lawyer who lived in exile for decades during Gaddafi's rule, has a range of enemies within the government and among Libya's various militias.

Criticism of him has surged since US forces captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, better known as Abu Anas al-Libi, who was wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

The capture last week was denounced by Libyan officials but still proved deeply embarrassing for the government, which critics accused of being complicit in the operation. It was not clear whether Mr Zeidan's kidnapping was connected to the backlash over the US operation.

A security analyst for North Africa Risk Consulting, Geoff Porter, said Libi's capture might have been ''a spark'' but Mr Zeidan's kidnapping followed a pattern of political manipulation by armed groups that had worsened under Libya's weak transitional leadership.

''If you have a grievance with the state - and the state is phenomenally unresponsive - one of the ways to compel the state to recognise your grievance is you take an institution or an individual hostage,'' Mr Porter said. ''It was only a matter of time, I think, before someone acted aggressively against Zeidan.''

Libya's government is dangerously weak and deeply divided. Its army and police lack power. Day-to-day security efforts are typically delegated to state-affiliated militias that are better armed than the official security bodies, but they are also difficult to control.

In recent months, Libya's myriad - and often competing - militias have used force to try to achieve their political aims. They have shut down oil infrastructure and forced political appointments and legislative changes.

Early on Thursday, the state news agency quoted an Interior Ministry spokesman as saying that Mr Zeidan had been arrested and was in good health. That report was later contradicted by the Interior Minister, who called the kidnapping ''a crime''.

Officials and witnesses said two local militias freed Mr Zeidan, without a fight, from a house about mid-morning.

He returned to the heavily guarded luxury hotel where he lived, collected his belongings and drove with armed guards to the government headquarters, witnesses said.

At 12:33pm on Thursday, as he made his way to his office, Mr Zeidan tweeted from his official account: ''If the purpose of my kidnapping is to get me to resign, I won't resign. We are taking slow, but steady steps on the right path.''

He delivered a short speech from his office thanking the military, the police, the militias that helped and those from across the country who ''phoned a lot''.

Mr Zeidan did not name his captors nor detail their demands. But he and government spokespeople suggested the kidnappers were trying to force him to make political concessions.

''We emphasise that this crime cannot undermine the legitimacy of the Libyan state institutions,'' a government spokesman said shortly before Mr Zeidan's release. ''The interim government emphasises that it cannot bow to any blackmail from any party.''

But the kidnapping was undoubtedly a setback in a country that is trying to change perceptions of lawlessness.

''On the face of it, no matter which way you slice it and dice it, it's obviously a really bad thing when your prime minister is kidnapped,'' Mr Porter said.

Washington Post