JERUSALEM — Russia ordered its diplomats to leave Libya on Thursday after unidentified gunmen tried to storm the Russian Embassy in Tripoli late Wednesday.
No Russians were injured in the attack, which included rocket and automatic weapons fire, and the attackers were repelled by embassy security personnel. But the attackers managed to scale the compound’s walls on three sides and pull down the Russian flag. Unconfirmed reports said one Libyan may have been killed.
The assault recalled the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi that left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
The attack is the second in less than two years on the Russian compound. In February 2012, Syrians and Libyans launched a similar assault to protest Russia’s blocking of a United Nations resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow confirmed Wednesday night’s attack. Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksander Lukashevich said two cars, filled with gunmen, drove up to the embassy’s main entrance and shot up a vehicle that was parked outside, setting it ablaze. Small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades were then fired at the building from multiple directions.
Russia claimed that only its security guards intervened to protect the embassy and that Libyan security forces, including diplomatic police who occupy a patrol station at one of the embassy compound’s corners, were absent.
Local journalists said they saw what appeared to be looting of the embassy following the attack, with computers and television sets being taken from the building. There were also reports that the attackers attempted to set the embassy on fire.
On Thursday, Lukashevich said Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdelaziz warned the Russian ambassador that Libya would be unable to protect the compound. That prompted the decision to evacuate the diplomats to Tunisia, from which they’ll be flown to Moscow on Friday, Lukashevich said, according to news agency reports from Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly cited instability in Libya as among his reasons for opposing international intervention in Syria. Russia agreed to a U.N. Security Council resolution in 2011 that allowed the United States and its NATO allies to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilian protesters, then complained bitterly that NATO abused its authority by helping to topple Gadhafi.
The motive for Wednesday night’s attack was under investigation, but Libyan news reports said that it might have been revenge for the killing of a top revolutionary commander from the Tripoli suburb of Suq al Jumma and his mother by a Russian woman.
A police official reached by phone in Tripoli told McClatchy that he did not believe that the Russian woman and the commander were romantically involved. He said that the crime appeared to be politically motivated and that someone had written “death to peace” in blood on the wall of the house where the double murder took place.
“The military commander had seven gunshots to his head and his mother was stabbed to death,” the official said. He asked not to be indentified by name because he was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Meanwhile, another assassination was reported in Benghazi, where dozens of military and judicial officials have been assassinated since Gadhafi’s overthrow.
The latest target was Navy Col. Saleh Elhadiri, who was shot three times as he was driving his son to school. His son also died in the hail of bullets.
Most of those killed had at some time or other worked for Gadhafi’s government, although many had joined the rebels who fought a NATO-backed battle against Gadhafi in 2011.
Libyan authorities have said they believe that at least 100 former officials may be targeted for death, but they’ve been unable to determine whether the gunmen behind the killings are bitter Gaddafi supporters or Islamist militants bent on revenge against members of the previous regime’s security apparatus.
Libya’s central government has been unable to exert its authority throughout most of Libya in the two years since Gadhafi fell. That failure was again on view Tuesday when the United Nations mission in Libya and the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report that said detainees continued to be abused, tortured and killed in Libyan prisons despite efforts by the Libyan government to stop such practices.
Many of those abuses came at the hands of militias that refused to disarm after the end of the anti-Gadhafi revolt.
Fryberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.