U.S. pulls staff out of Libya embassy

| Saturday, July 26, 2014, 9:30 p.m.

TRIPOLI — As three F-16 fighters provided air support and Osprey aircraft carrying Marines flew overhead, the United States on Saturday evacuated its embassy staff from Libya, driving diplomats across the border into Tunisia.

“Security has to come first,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. “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.”

In recent weeks, militia fighting has spread to Tripoli's airport, compromising the easiest evacuation route for American personnel.

Scores of people have been killed and injured in the battles.

The American ambassador in Tripoli, Deborah Jones, conveyed on Twitter how tenuous the security situation has become.

“Heavy shelling and other exchanges in our Abu Salim neighborhood this morning,” she wrote last Sunday. Using an Arabic term that means “thanks to God,” she added: “Alhamdullila all safe.”

For the past two months, the U.S. military increasingly has moved resources near Tripoli in anticipation of an evacuation as the State Department assessed how long it could stay, McClatchy Newspapers reported. In May, the military moved the USS Bataan, with 1,000 Marines on board, toward the Libyan coast.

The decision to pull the 158 Americans out of the Libyan capital was an acknowledgment by the Obama administration of a collapsing situation three years after American and NATO forces helped rebels bring down Moammar Gadhafi. It was rich in symbolism: Less than two years ago, terrorists in the eastern city of Benghazi stormed two U.S. compounds, killing four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the five-hour drive to Tunis went smoothly.

“The mission was conducted without incident,” he said.

Although House Republicans expressed gratitude for the work of the U.S. forces, they blamed the rushed evacuation on poor leadership by the Obama administration and said the withdrawal will complicate any plans to restore order there.

California Rep. Ed Royce, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, who leads the House Intelligence panel, said it never should have gotten to this point.

“Our diplomatic absence will make the hard task of achieving political stability in Libya even harder,” Royce said.

“This deteriorating security posture is the same scenario playing out across Northern Africa, the Middle East and Eurasia,” Rogers said. “This is what happens when the United States is not engaged and lacks a clear foreign policy that includes strong U.S. leadership.”

The decision was not made lightly, the State Department said. When American diplomats evacuate a diplomatic post, they must smash computers and other sensitive equipment that could be exploited for intelligence purposes.

Before evacuating the embassy, “classified holdings were destroyed in accordance with procedures. Some classified equipment not normally destroyed was taken out,” Harf said.

Speaking to reporters in Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry said Libya's situation of “free-wheeling militia violence” posed a real risk.

“We will return the moment the security situation permits us to,” Kerry said.

The latest battles in Tripoli have mainly been between Islamists from the western city of Misurata and another armed group, the Zintan militia, which took control of the airport months ago and had been put on the government payroll to provide security there.

Instead, the airport became a war prize. The conflict initially was confined to the outskirts of the complex, but in recent days spilled onto the tarmac and into the terminal. An Airbus A330 belonging to state-owned Afriqiyah Airways was left smoldering on the runway five days ago. Estimates of damage to the airfield and its facilities run into the millions of dollars.

Two weeks ago, the United Nations withdrew its staff, and Turkey on Friday announced it would, too.

In an official travel warning, the State Department urged all Americans who remain in the country to leave immediately, saying the situation is “unpredictable and unstable.”

McClatchy Newspapers and the Washington Post contributed to this report.

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