BENGHAZI: The US ambassador to Libya and three embassy staff were killed in an attack on the Benghazi consulate and a safe house refuge on Tuesday, stormed by Islamist militants blaming America for a film seen as insulting the Holy Prophet (pbuh).
Militants attacked and set fire to the US consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi, the cradle of last year’s Washington-backed uprising against Muammar Qadhafi’s 42-year rule. Another assault was mounted on the US embassy in Cairo.
Employees at the consulate were rushed to a safe house after the initial attack. An evacuation plane with US commando units then arrived from Tripoli to evacuate them from the house.
“It was supposed to be a secret place and we were surprised the armed groups knew about it. There was shooting,” Libya’s deputy interior minister Wanis Sharif said. Two US personnel were killed there, he said. Two other people were killed at the main consular building and between 12 and 17 wounded.
Images of Ambassador Stevens purportedly taken after he was killed circulated on the Internet. One image showed him being carried, with a white shirt pulled up and a cut on his forehead. Security experts say the area around Benghazi is host to a number of Islamist militant groups who oppose any western presence in Muslim countries.
The worst-case scenario for western governments is that a spate of recent attacks could be the start of an Iraq-style resistance by militants. That could have an impact on oil exports as the energy sector depends on foreign workers.
President Barack Obama branded it an “outrageous attack” and ordered increased security at US diplomatic posts worldwide.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the attack was the work of a “small and savage group”.
Violence also threatened to spread to other Muslim countries. By nightfall on Wednesday, 24 hours after the attacks in Egypt and Libya, police were firing teargas at angry demonstrators outside the US embassy in Tunisia.
The attacks could alter US attitudes towards the wave of revolutions across the Arab world, which toppled secularist authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, bringing Islamists to power.
The violence could influence a close-fought US presidential election, in which Mr Obama’s challenger Mitt Romney has accused him of not defending US interests robustly enough.
Mr Romney issued a statement criticising Mr Obama’s initial response; the president’s campaign responded by accusing him of scoring political points at a time of national tragedy.
ROLE IN REBELLION
Tributes poured in to honour Stevens, who said in a video posted on the embassy website of his involvement in the revolution: “I was thrilled to watch the Libyan people stand up and demand their rights.”
California-born ambassador Christopher Stevens was a key player when the Obama administration supported the anti-Qadhafi rebellion last year.
He had hailed the Libyan revolt that overthrew Muammar Qadhafi, but now appears to have been struck down in a rocket attack by the very forces unleashed after the strongman’s fall.
Stevens had served as envoy to the Libyan rebels from the early weeks of the Feb 2011 revolt, in which Nato aircraft helped rebels overthrow the 40-year-old regime and eventually capture and kill Qadhafi.
“I was thrilled to watch the Libyan people stand up and demand their rights,” Stevens said in a video introduction released by the State Department shortly after he was appointed ambassador in May this year.
“Now I’m excited to return to Libya to continue the great work we’ve started, building a solid partnership between the United States and Libya to help you, the Libyan people, achieve your goals.”
The attack raised other questions about the future US diplomatic presence in Libya, relations between Washington and Tripoli and the unstable security situation after Qadhafi.
During Qadhafi's reign an Islamist demonstration of the kind that erupted Tuesday night would have been unthinkable, but so would the “free, democratic, prosperous Libya” that Stevens had said he hoped to help bring about.
The incident had echoes of the publication in a Danish newspaper of blasphemous cartoons that touched off riots in the Middle East, Africa and Asia in 2006 in which at least 50 people died.
Across the Muslim world, leaders will be concerned about preventing the spread of violence.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the film in a statement, calling its making a “devilish act” and saying he was certain those involved in its production represented a very small minority.
The statement from Karzai – who is defended by 113,000 Nato-led troops including nearly 75,000 Americans – made no mention of the violence against US diplomats.
Afghanistan shut down the YouTube site so Afghans would not be able to see the film. The US embassy in Kabul appealed to Afghan leaders for help “maintaining calm”.
In Egypt, Prime Minister Hisham Kandil condemned violence while calling on Washington to act against the film’s makers.
“What happened at the US embassy in Cairo is regrettable and rejected by all Egyptian people and cannot be justified, especially if we consider that the people that produced this low film have no relation to the (US) government,” he said.
“We ask the American government to take a firm position towards this film’s producers within the framework of international charters that criminalise acts that stir strife on the basis of race, colour or religion.”
SECURIY OVERRUN: Accounts of the consulate attack described chaos and bloodshed, with Libyan security overrun and retreating.
“We started shooting at them, and then some other people also threw hand-made bombs over the fences and started the fires in the buildings,” said 17-year-old Hamam, who took part in the assault and refused to give his last name.
“There was some Libyan security for the embassy outside, but when the hand-made bombs went off they ran off and left,” said Hamam, who said he saw an American die in front of him in the mayhem that ensued. He said the body was covered in ash.
Libyan security forces came under heavy fire and we were not prepared for the intensity of the attack,” said Abdel Monem Al Hurr, spokesman for Libya’s security committee.
One Libyan security official blamed the attack on Ansar al Sharia, an Al Qaeda-style group that has been active in Benghazi.
Sharif, the deputy interior minister, said leaders of the group had denied responsibility: “There is no specific side to blame.”
Witnesses said the mob included tribesmen, militia and other militants. Ansar al Sharia cars arrived at the start of the protest, but left once fighting started, Hamam said.
“The protesters were running around the compound just looking for Americans, they just wanted to find an American so they could catch one.”
On Wednesday, the sprawling, leafy compound in Benghazi stood empty, with passers-by freely walking in to take a look at the damage. The heat of the fires could still be felt.
Walls were charred and a small fire burned inside one of the buildings with glass from shattered chandeliers on the floor. A small group of men was trying to extinguish the flames and three security men briefly surveyed the scene.
Chairs, a table and food lay alongside empty bullet shells.
Some blood stains could also be seen in front of one of the buildings. Three cars were burnt out.
American ambassadors in such volatile countries as Libya are accompanied by tight security, usually travelling in well-protected convoys. Diplomatic missions are normally protected by Marines or other special forces.
Ambassador Stevens grew up in California, graduated from Berkeley and worked in North Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer. He taught English in Morocco before joining the foreign service where he worked in the Middle East and North Africa.
He went on to join the State Department and serve as a foreign service officer in Jerusalem, Damascus, Cairo and Riyadh.
The Arabic and French-speaking diplomat also served in Libya as deputy chief of mission between 2007 and 2009, shortly after the United States restored relations with Qadhafi’s regime.—Reuters