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Foreign Ministry fire in Libya 2 days after prime minister's abduction

By Nic Robertson. Yousuf Basil and Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
updated 5:38 AM EDT, Sat October 12, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A plume of smoke rises up over the foreign ministry compound in Tripoli
  • Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted from his hotel room
  • He was released by a militia that he says was carrying forged papers
  • He calls his abduction a "coup against legitimacy"

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- Libya's foreign ministry compound caught fire Saturday just two days after the country's prime minister was kidnapped and a day after a car bomb exploded outside of the Swedish consulate.

The fire burned on the ministry grounds and but did not reached the building. But the flames rose up to the height of its roof. Emergency vehicles responded to the fire.

The kidnapping

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan on Friday described his kidnapping this week as an attempted coup carried out by political opponents bent on toppling his government.

Zeidan was abducted early Thursday from a luxury hotel in Tripoli and held for several hours by militia gunmen before being released, an incident that has highlighted the security threat posed by militias that have run rampant since the revolution that ousted Moammar Gadhafi two years ago.

"I don't believe that 100 cars armed with heavy weapons can surround the hotel and lock it down and create checkpoints to prevent people from passing ... without an order from their leadership," Zeidan said in televised remarks.

"...This was coup, a coup against the legitimacy" of the government.

Political opponents

Zeidan blamed political opponents for his abduction, saying they had been trying to take over the government.

He said his abductors identified themselves as members of the Operations Room of Libya's Revolutionaries, a militia group. They forced their way into his room at the Corinthia Hotel before dawn, he said, carrying forged papers and claiming to have orders from Libya's general prosecutor.

They ransacked his room and took his documents and computer, he said.

The five-star hotel that Zeidan calls home is popular among government officials, some of whom reside there, including the justice minister.

His was not the only room they barged into, he said. Gunmen also entered a number of hotel rooms belonging to diplomatic and international missions.

Bogus corruption claim?

But the Operations Room of Libya's Revolutionaries said it merely detained him over financial and administrative corruption charges.

However, the Justice Ministry said there was no arrest warrant for Zeidan, calling the move a kidnapping.

The militia works with the Interior Ministry -- a not altogether uncommon practice in Libya, which has tried unsuccessfully to rein in the many militia groups. Instead, various ministries have teamed up with them for their own needs, including providing security services.

Foreign consulates

A car bomb exploded outside the Swedish consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Friday morning, damaging the consulate but injuring no one, the office's chief told CNN.

Consular chief Anders Nilsson said he was in an apartment at the back of the building when he heard the blast. A "hail of glass flew through the building."

The building's front was "entirely black," and all the apartment's windows and doors were "blown out," according to Nilsson. "We found a hubcap belonging to the vehicle inside the consulate," he said.

Eight people live in the consulate, which closed because of the explosion. The eight will remain elsewhere in Benghazi, Nilsson said.

In early October, gunmen attacked the Russian embassy in Tripoli, Russian state media reported. They fled after security guards killed some of the gunmen.

Russia evacuated its embassy staff and their families to Tunisia, ITAR-TASS reported.

Roving militias

Armed militias have roamed the country largely unchecked since the 2011 ouster of Gadhafi.

Gangs of armed men have surrounded key ministries, including the Justice Ministry, trying to force out members of the democratically elected government.

Justice Minister Salah Marghani was forced to evacuate after armed militias surrounded his ministry in April.

Libyan intelligence services have warned that the country is becoming a haven for al Qaeda to regroup and regenerate itself.

Numerous weapons left over after Gadhafi's downfall are providing groups with different motivations to form their own militias, government officials said.

CNN's Nic Robertson reported from Tripoli; Yousuf Basil and Chelsea J. Carter from Atlanta. CNN's Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this report.

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