Saturday, July 26, 2014

Libya: Update--Remaining US Embassy Staff Evacuate to Neighboring Tunisia Under US Fighter Escort

According to The Associated Press, the United States shut down its embassy in Libya on Saturday (July 26) and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under US military escort amid a significant deterioration in security in Tripoli, as fighting intensified between rival militias, the US State Department said.

Those US citizens remaining in Libya are encouraged to leave the country promptly by whatever means are available. All US citizens should defer all travel to Libya.

"Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the US Embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya," spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

The withdrawal underscored the Obama Administration's concern about the heightened risk to US diplomats abroad, particularly in Libya where memories of the deadly 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi are still vivid and the political uproar it created ahead of a new congressional investigation into the incident.

"Securing our facilities and ensuring the safety of our personnel are top department priorities, and we did not make this decision lightly," Harf said. "Security has to come first. Regrettably, we had to take this step because the location of our embassy is in very close proximity to intense fighting and ongoing violence between armed Libyan factions."

The evacuation was accompanied by the release of a new State Department travel warning for Libya urging Americans not to go to the country and recommending that those already there leave immediately. 

Speaking Saturday in Paris where he was meeting with other diplomats on the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Secretary of State John Kerry said the US was temporarily shuttering the embassy because of the "free-wheeling militia violence."

COMMENT: US personnel at the Tripoli Embassy, which had already been operating with limited staffing, left the capital around dawn and traveled by road to neighboring Tunisia, according to Harf. 

As the evacuation was underway, residents of the city reported in real time on social media that American military aircraft flew overhead while US soldiers escorted a convoy of vehicles out of town. The State Department would not confirm the evacuation until all staffers were safely in Tunisia.

The Pentagon said in statement that F-16 fighter jets and other aircraft provided security. "The mission was conducted without incident, and the entire operation lasted approximately five hours," the statement said.

The State Department said embassy operations will be suspended until a determination is made that the security situation has improved. Tripoli has been embroiled for weeks in inter-militia violence that has killed and wounded dozens on all sides. The fighting has been particularly intense at the city's airport.

"We are committed to supporting the Libyan people during this challenging time, and are currently exploring options for a permanent return to Tripoli as soon as the security situation on the ground improves. In the interim, staff will operate from Washington and other posts in the region," Harf said. The evacuated staffers will continue to work on Libya issues in Tunis, elsewhere in North Africa and Washington.

The Obama Administration has been particularly sensitive about security of US government employees in Libya since the September 11, 2012, attack on diplomatic facilities in the country's second largest city of Benghazi that killed ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. 

The Benghazi mission was abandoned after that attack and never reopened. The embassy In Tripoli has been operating with reduced staff since but has remained open even as the violence intensified.

On Friday, US Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones appealed for fighting near the embassy to stop. On Sunday, Jones tweeted about "heavy shelling and other exchanges" of fire in the vicinity of the embassy and speculation about the potential evacuation had been rife at the State Department for more than a week.

In Tripoli, clashes near the international airport have forced residents to evacuate their homes nearby after they were hit by shells. On Friday, the official Libyan news agency LANA reported that explosions were heard early in the day near the airport area and continued into the afternoon.

The battle in Tripoli began earlier this month when Islamist-led militias launched a surprise assault on the airport, under control of rival militias from the western mountain town of Zintan. On Monday, a $113 million Airbus A330 passenger jet for Libya's state-owned Afriqiyah Airways was destroyed in the fighting.