The U.S. State Department evacuated its Libyan embassy yesterday, sending staff elsewhere and advising all American citizens to leave the country after clashes between militias near the diplomatic offices in Tripoli.
Embassy personnel arrived in Tunisia and will travel from there to other locations to continue their diplomatic work, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Paris yesterday. The evacuees included Marines who provided security at the embassy and during the relocation, Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in an e-mailed statement. The operation lasted five hours, Kirby said.
“Freewheeling militia violence” in the Tripoli area “presents a very real risk for our personnel, so we are suspending our current diplomatic activities at the embassy, not closing the embassy but suspending the activities,” Kerry said. “We are deeply committed and remain committed to the diplomatic process in Libya.”
The unrest highlights the turmoil that has come to define Libya’s political situation more than three years after the ouster and killing of longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi. On Sept. 11, 2012, four Americans including Ambassador Christopher Stevens were killed in attacks on a diplomatic compound and CIA outpost in Benghazi, Libya, an incident that sparked a series of congressional investigations.
The State Department deals with more than 1,000 threats and incidents annually against U.S. interests overseas, according to a May report from the Congressional Research Service.
Embassies in Syria and Central African Republic are under suspended operations, according to the department. Last August the U.S. shut down almost two dozen embassies and consulates from West Africa to South Asia in response to terror threats, reopening most of them one week later.
The evacuation in Libya, while based on specific concerns about the tumult in that nation, may also reflect heightened worry about terrorism threats in light of unrest throughout much of the Middle East and Ukraine, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The July 17 downing of a Malaysian passenger jetliner in Ukraine and Norway’s decision to place itself on high terror alert because of intelligence that nationals from Syria may be plotting an attack underscore “a world which feels much less certain and much less secure,” Alterman said yesterday in a telephone interview. “You don’t know what the bad guys can do, much less what they will do,” he said.
Libya poses special risks, he said, because of the Benghazi incident and the nation’s unstable government. “It’s sometimes hard to know there who exactly we’re dealing with,” he said.
U.S. politics also may have been a factor in the evacuation decision, Alterman said. “We have a congressional attitude to look for scandal and malfeasance everywhere,” he said. “This is making people abundantly cautious.”
U.S. Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, termed the evacuation “the right call” while also taking President Barack Obama to task.
“Unfortunately, this development was predictable, given the lack of direction and leadership from this administration” in its Libya policy since Qaddafi’s ouster, the California Republican said yesterday in a statement. “Our diplomatic absence will make the hard task of achieving political stability in Libya even harder.”
“We can add Libya to the growing list of countries in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia where extremist forces are gaining strength and threatening U.S. interests,” he said.
U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee, expressed similar views. While saying in a statement he was “pleased our diplomats are safe,” the Michigan Republican added: “This is what happens when the United States is not engaged and lacks a clear foreign policy that includes strong U.S. leadership.”
The State Department warned U.S. citizens against all travel to Libya and recommended that Americans who are there leave immediately. The agency is “currently exploring options for a permanent return to Tripoli as soon as the security situation on the ground improves,” Harf said.
The State Department reviewed and changed security procedures in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack. An independent U.S. review panel found the department had “grossly inadequate” security in Benghazi before the attack and needed to overhaul procedures to correct “systemic failures.”
The panel, appointed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, found the department showed “a lack of proactive leadership and management ability.”
Rivalries between Libyan militias, which have often doubled as national security forces, have undercut the already-weak central government’s ability to exert influence and stabilize the nation that sits atop Africa’s largest proven crude-oil reserves.
Clashes between rival militias in and around Tripoli’s international airport have raged for roughly two weeks, leaving more than 47 dead and largely crippling resident movement in the area. The fighting has damaged the airport, the control tower and planes parked at the facility.
The clashes, between an anti-Islamist militia aligned with a renegade general and pro-Islamists, are a spinoff of the violence in the country’s eastern region between Islamist militants and their opponents, headed by General Khalifa Haftar.
The fighting has underscored the central government’s inability to control the powerful militias that have, since Qaddafi’s ouster, also doubled as security forces.
Qaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years and his regime was frequently linked to terrorism abroad, including the mid-flight 1988 bomb explosion that crashed a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland. His ouster, part of a series of Middle East uprisings known collectively as the Arab Spring, was supported by nations including the U.S. and hailed at the time as a chance for democracy to take root in Libya.
With Libya still lacking a strong government, a trove of weapons looted from armories has provided the necessary firepower for semi-autonomy bids in the east and sparked worries among regional neighbors such as Egypt of a spillover of the violence.
Libya’s daily crude production stood at 450,000 barrels on July 22, compared with 550,000 barrels the previous week, according to National Oil spokesman Mohamed Elharari.
To contact the reporters on this story: Donna Abu-Nasr in Beirut at email@example.com; Sangwon Yoon in Paris at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at email@example.com Don Frederick