WASHINGTON — With Libya facing its highest levels of violence since its 2011 uprising, the United States drove its embassy staff and military personnel Saturday to neighboring Tunisia with U.S. military escorts flying overhead.
The embassy staff will leave Tunisia and work in other embassies around the region and in Washington. U.S. Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones will work from the American embassy in Valletta, Malta, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
The decision to evacuate the 158 Americans, including Marines, from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, the Libya capital, was an undeniable acknowledgment by the Obama administration of a collapsing situation, just three years after U.S. and NATO forces helped rebels bring down the four-decade rule of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Violence had once been largely limited to restive eastern Libya, where in the city of Benghazi, extremists killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, along with three other Americans during a Sept 2012 storming of the U.S. Special Mission and CIA compound there. But in the last few months, western Libya, where the capital sits, similar battles erupted between Islamist and secular forces seeking control of the country.
“Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya,” Harf said.
Jones on Friday tweeted: “We have not been attacked but our neighborhood a bit 2 close to the action. Diplomatic missions 2 B avoided pls.”
Rival militia, paid by Libya’s flailing government and armed with grenades and anti-aircraft launchers, have battled for weeks for control of Tripoli’s main airport, destroying the facility and most of the airplanes parked there, killing at least 50 fighters in the last two weeks. Islamist militias from the city of Misrata sought unsuccessfully to wrest control of the airport from a rival secular militia from Zintan.
The militias were born during the 2011 uprising that led to Gadhafi’s fall and have since fought for power in Libya’s new government. With no national security force in the early days of the post-Gadhafi period, the government put them on the government payroll.
With the airport shut down, the United States lost a means to evacuate its staff, which in the last few months had been whittled down to the bare minimum. In addition to the battle between militias, there were a growing number of kidnappings and assassinations of prominent liberal activists across the capital.
The United Nations already has evacuated its personnel, citing the deteriorating security situation.
It was unclear how the United States would secure the embassy, which is in the middle of Tripoli, from potential looting, given that Marines were among those who evacuated the site.
For the past two months, the U.S. military increasingly moved resources near Tripoli in anticipation of a possible evacuation as the State Department assessed how long it could stay in country. In May, the U.S. military moved the USS Bataan, with 1,000 Marines on board, to move toward the Libyan coast.
Before evacuating the embassy, “classified holdings were destroyed in accordance with procedures. Some classified equipment not normally destroyed was taken out,” Harf said.
Secretary of State John Kerry, traveling in Paris Saturday, stressed to reporters that the evacuation was temporary and the United States would return as soon as the security situation would allow.
The State Department and Pentagon announced the evacuation after the embassy’s civilian and military personnel arrived in Tunisia. An Airborne Response Force with MV-22 Ospreys helicopters, as well as F-16 fighter jets and other assets provided security over the convoy during the five-hour trip, the Pentagon said. The transport occurred without incident even as on social media, some Libyans tracked the movement of air support overhead.