Tripoli, July 26 (Reuters): The US evacuated its embassy in Libya today, driving its staff under heavy military guard across the border to Tunisia after escalating clashes broke out between rival militias in Tripoli.
Security in the Libyan capital has deteriorated following two weeks of fighting between brigades of former rebel fighters who have exchanged rocket, cannon and artillery fire in southern Tripoli near the embassy compound.
The violence is the worst seen in Tripoli since the 2011 fall of Muammar Gaddafi. The fighting has killed at least 50 people, shut down most international flights and forced the UN and Turkey to pull out their diplomatic staff.
F-16 fighters and Osprey aircraft carrying Marines provided security to the US convoy as a precaution, but there were no incidents during the five-hour drive from Tripoli to Tunisia, US officials 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,” a US state department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
Speaking to reporters in Paris before holding talks on West Asia, US secretary of state John Kerry described Libya’s situation of “free-wheeling militia violence” as a real risk to US staff with clashes around the embassy.
The state department spokeswoman said staff would return to Tripoli once it was deemed safe. Until then, embassy operations would be conducted from elsewhere in the region and Washington.
Tripoli was quieter today after the US evacuation, but at least 10 people were killed and 50 more injured in clashes between special forces and Islamist militants in the eastern city of Benghazi, security and hospital sources said.
Security in Libya is an especially sensitive subject for the US because of the September 11, 2012, attack on the US mission in Benghazi, in which militants killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The attack also brought political fallout for President Barack Obama, with Republicans saying his administration did not provide sufficient overall security, did not respond quickly to the attack and then tried to cover up its shortcomings.