The United States has suspended operations at its embassy in Libya and evacuated its diplomats to neighbouring Tunisia under US military escort amid a significant deterioration in security in Tripoli, the State Department said.
“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 American diplomats abroad, particularly in Libya where memories of the deadly 2012 attack on the US mission in the eastern city of Benghazi are still vivid and the political uproar over it remain fresh 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,” Ms 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.
“The Libyan government has not been able to adequately build its military and police forces and improve security,” it said. “Many military-grade weapons remain in the hands of private individuals, including anti-aircraft weapons that may be used against civilian aviation.”
Speaking 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 shutting the embassy because of the “free-wheeling militia violence”.
“So we are suspending our current diplomatic activities at the embassy – not closing the embassy – but suspending the activities ... ,” Mr Kerry said. “We are deeply committed and remain committed to the diplomatic process in Libya.”
American personnel at the Tripoli embassy, which had already been operating with limited staffing, left the capital around dawn and travelled by road to neighbouring Tunisia, according to Ms Harf.
As the evacuation was under way, 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 US 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,” Ms Harf said.
The evacuated staffers will continue to work on Libya issues in Tunis, elsewhere in North Africa and Washington.