TRIPOLI, LIBYA — Relations between Tripoli and Washington will not be hurt by the U.S. raid that seized an al-Qaida suspect from the Libyan capital, Libyan leaders said Tuesday, as they requested Washington allow the family of the detainee — now being held on a U.S. warship — to establish contact with him.
The comments reflected the predicament of Libya’s weak central government after U.S. special operations force snatched Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known by his alias Anas al-Libi, on Saturday. The leadership is wary of criticizing its needed ally, the United States, but it also is trying to counter anger among powerful Islamic extremists at home who accuse the government of allowing or even colluding in the abduction of a Libyan citizen.
Al-Libi is alleged to be a senior al-Qaida member and is wanted by the United States in connection to the bombing of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, with a $5 million bounty on his head. Immediately after the raid, the government issued a statement saying the raid was carried out without its knowledge and asking Washington for “clarifications” about the operation.
In his first public comments since the raid, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan insisted that Libyan citizens should be tried in their homeland if they are accused of crimes and vowed, “Libya does not surrender its sons.”
But Zeidan said the incident won’t hurt ties with Washington. “The U.S. was very helpful to Libya during the revolution and the relations should not be affected by an incident, even if it is a serious one,” he said at a press conference with his Moroccan counterpart Abdelilah Benkirane during a three-day visit to Rabat. He said the justice minister has been examining “different legal options to solve this problem in a wise and reasonable manner taking into account Libyans’ rights and preserving relations.”
U.S. officials say al-Libi was immediately taken out of the country and is now held in a U.S. warship for questioning.
In Tripoli, Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani said he has met with the U.S. ambassador to Libya to inquire about details of the seizure. Al-Marghani said that while the abduction was illegal according to Libyan laws, al-Libi is now in U.S. custody and will be subject to its justice system.
“We will focus on human and citizen rights and on the necessity that he gets a fair trial,” al-Marghani told reporters. “The government is putting higher national interests in mind.”
He said he asked the U.S. diplomat that the family of al-Libi be allowed to speak with him by telephone wherever he is and eventually visit him, and that the Red Cross be allowed to see him. He also said he asked that the Libyan consulate in New York, where al-Libi has been indicted and could face trial, be allowed to establish contact with him.
Al-Marghani said his government is concerned about al-Libi’s health because he suffers from hepatitis, and asked he be looked after.
The Tripoli government remains weak, two years after the fall of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, unable to extend its authority around the country, while armed militias — including Islamic extremists — hold sway in many areas. Some of those groups now accuse the government of colluding with the Americans in the raid, or at least turning a blind eye, raising concerns about violent retaliation.
Tariq Mitri, the U.N. representative in Libya, emphasized in a statement the importance of national sovereignty and the rights of the accused to a fair trial.
“The government of Libya and the Libyan people have every right to know the circumstances of the abduction,” he said Tuesday.
In a statement of its own, Human Rights Watch called on the U.S. to ensure al-Libi was quickly charged before a judge and given access to a lawyer in accordance with international law, adding that he should be tried in a civilian court.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday defended the capture of al-Libi, saying complaints about the operation from Libya and others are unfounded. Kerry said the suspect was a “legal and appropriate target” for the U.S. military and will face justice in a court of law.
The Libyan justice minister said his government is checking into reports that some of those who carried out the raid were Libyans, saying it is hard to know their nationalities. If any were Libyans, he said, they face prosecution.
Paul Schemm contributed to this report from Rabat, Morocco.