Benghazi looms as concerns about safety of Libya embassy mount

Fighting in Libya is raising concerns about the safety of personnel at the US embassy in Tripoli as the Obama administration seeks to avoid a repeat of the Benghazi tragedy. 

Libyan national army/AP
Smoke rises over the parliament area of Tripoli, Libya, after troops of Gen. Khalifa Haftar targeted Islamist lawmakers and officials. (AP Photo

Intensifying turmoil or the threat of anti-American violence in a country can sometimes lead the United States to consider closing its embassy and other diplomatic facilities as a precautionary measure. 

But when the country in question is Libya, there’s another factor figuring in the decisionmaking process: Benghazi.

Lingering in the background as the US considers whether to close its embassy in Tripoli in response to mounting chaos is the continuing controversy over the Sept. 11, 2012 attack. Republican critics say the Obama administration was unprepared and did not responded adequately to the deadly violence that hit the diplomatic mission in eastern Libya.

The attacks on the diplomatic mission and a nearby Central Intelligence Agency annex left four Americans dead, including US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. In subsequent inquiries the Pentagon has maintained that its decision not to launch an emergency rescue operation was correct because the nearest US aircraft were in Italy and would not have arrived in time to intervene.

But post-Benghazi considerations appear to have played a role in precautionary security steps taken by the Pentagon this week as inter-faction fighting has escalated across Libya and in the capital, Tripoli, in particular.

The Pentagon has moved aircraft and dozens of Marines to a US naval air station at a NATO base on Sicily in Sigonella, Italy. The Marines were dispatched from a US crisis response team based in Spain that was created in response to the Benghazi attacks.

The State Department says the US is watching Libya closely with the security of Americans there in mind, but that no evacuation decision has been made. “The situation on the ground, obviously, could change quickly, and so we’ll continue to evaluate and update our posture as needed,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.

Libya has appeared to be sliding closer to civil war as a former Libyan general who is also an American citizen has mounted attacks in recent days against Islamist militias and the country’s Islamist-led parliament. On Tuesday, the militant group Ansar al-Shariah – implicated by the US in the Benghazi attacks – vowed to take on militias that have pledged allegiance to the former general, Khalifa Haftar.

Calling forces fighting with Mr. Haftar “advocates of sedition and corruption,” the group said that “the choice of confrontation has become inevitable.” 

Also on Tuesday, the Libyan government announced that parliamentary elections will be held June 25, raising hopes among some Libyans that the country's political standoff can be resolved at the ballot box and not through violence.

The US embassy in Tripoli was closed last August as part of a regionwide response to what the State Department said was a heightened risk of attack from Al Qaeda and its affiliates across the Middle East. More than two dozen embassies and other diplomatic facilities were temporarily closed.

But such precautionary closings do not result in the kind of emergency airlift the Pentagon is preparing for should it be called into action in Libya. For example, the Pentagon has doubled to eight the number of Osprey aircraft at the Sigonella air station. Ospreys are capable of vertical takeoff and landing and thus can assist in evacuating personnel from a besieged building. 

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