Updated: The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other American diplomats were killed when suspected Libyan religious extremists stormed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi late Tuesday, sparking a security crisis in the North African country and raising tensions across the Middle East.
Libyan officials spent the night trying to find those responsible for the killings, which occurred when an angry armed mob attacked the diplomatic complex in an apparent protest against an anti-Islamic video produced by a man who identified himself as an American-Israeli real-estate developer.
President Barack Obama in Washington condemned in the “strongest possible terms” the attack, saying the U.S. will work with the Libyan government to bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice. “Make no mistake, justice will be done,” the president said, but he didn’t elaborate.
U.S. officials said the attack in Benghazi may have been preplanned by militants who used the outbreak of protests as cover, but said it was too soon to tell whether that was the case.
“We aren’t prepared to definitively say that is what happened,” said one U.S. official, who called the idea of a preplanned attack “one theory” of what happened.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation said it has opened an investigation into the attack. American intelligence agencies are poring over threat information that could help indicate what groups may have taken part in the attack. Officials said intelligence agencies are looking specifically at the pro-al Qaeda group Ansar al-Shariah, but cautioned they don’t have solid evidence.
Officials weren’t aware of any specific or credible threats against the consulate or the ambassador in advance of the attack. Mr. Stevens is the first ambassador killed by hostile forces since 1979, when the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan was murdered in Kabul.
Officials said intelligence agencies were now trying to determine if any threads of information may have been missed.
Residents near where the U.S. Consulate is located in Benghazi described a harrowing scene of destructive mob violence that quickly spun out of control late Tuesday.
A Libyan doctor who lives in the same neighborhood as the consulate said that he and several of his neighbors attempted to get the mob of approximately 200 armed men to leave the area as they marched toward the U.S. compound. “We told them to leave our homes alone and one [of the militants] replied ‘The Americans are infidels and we are going to finish them,’ the doctor said. “Many of us then fled because the shooting started.”
Libyan security guards were overwhelmed with the invading mob, said several residents and a U.S. official. Local residents, who fled the street, reported hearing heavy gunfire, as well as the whoosh of rocket-propelled grenades. Many residents poured back out on the streets within a couple of hours, when flames and smoke from the burning consulate climbed in the air, smothering the neighborhood.
At that point, the shooting subsided, and residents and Libyan security personnel jumped into the destroyed diplomatic compound and attempted to pull the consular staff to safety. Libyans carried Ambassador Stevens’ unconscious body from the consulate and drove him to Benghazi Central Hospital, according to Libyans and U.S. officials.
Doctors at the hospital said that staff there tried to revive him, but he was dead upon arrival. A Libyan doctor who treated Ambassador Stevens said the diplomat died of severe asphyxiation and that he tried for 90 minutes to revive him, according to the Associated Press
Members of the Ansar al-Shariah militant group gave an interview to the local television station from the hospital early Wednesday morning, praising the men who attacked the consulate, calling them “the top layer of Libyan society.” However, the members told Benghazi TV that their organization, a group of religious fighters who battled to help oust Moammar Gadhafi from power, didn’t plan the attack against the Americans.
The news of the killings broke as Americans were waking up Wednesday. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the attack should “shock the conscience” of people of all faiths, but that it wouldn’t alter U.S. policy in Libya. The “mission in Libya is noble and necessary…and will continue,” she said from Washington. The U.S. also announced increased security measures for all U.S. diplomatic facilities world-wide.
U.S. officials didn’t immediately comment on the details of the deaths, or the reason for the unusually large diplomatic entourage to have been in Benghazi. It was unclear whether the bodies of the four Americans had been recovered. Mr. Stevens, who is usually based in the capital Tripoli, apparently was visiting Benghazi ahead of the planned opening of a U.S. cultural center there when the violence erupted Tuesday, said a Libyan official.
U.S. officials said a U.S. Marine security team was en route to Libya, which will be able to supplement security at the embassy. Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams, or FAST, which typically number between 50 and 200 Marines, are stationed in the U.S. and other locations world-wide. It wasn’t clear Wednesday where the FAST unit headed to Libya was from.
There is one U.S. Navy warship near Libya and two others slightly further away, a U.S. official said. Defense officials said as of Wednesday morning there were no orders to move any warships to Libya to assist.
Libyan officials, many of whom led the rebel government based in Benghazi and worked with Mr. Stevens during that time, condemned the killings. The head of the new congress, Mohammed Magarief, apologized to the American public for the tragedy. The deputy prime minister, Mustafa Abushagour, called the killings “an attack on America, Libya and the free world.”
By midday Wednesday, no one had been arrested for the violence or the deaths, and officials in Tripoli were scrambling to implement a response to what they admitted was a monumental security breach.
Libya’s new government has struggled to impose its authority on myriad gangs and former rebel brigades that remain armed and act outside the law. New security officials have had mixed success in implementing a plan whereby former rebels would be disbanded from their old brigades and given jobs as part of the new national army, defense forces and border guards.
One witness to the consulate attack Tuesday night said that a handful of Libyan soldiers dressed in the uniform of the new national army were on patrol outside the U.S. diplomatic structure when the mob arrived, but that they were almost immediately overwhelmed.
The witness said the Libyan forces concentrated on evacuating Libyan civilians attending a private wedding on the same street as the consulate when the armed militants started opening fire. “There were many people there who were trying to get to safety,” said the man, a Benghazi resident who declined to be named because he feared retaliation from the militants.
The militants-many of whom had long beards and wore the shortened dress common among fundamentalist Muslims-set fire to the consulate complex, and the several buildings inside the compound burned to the ground.
The violent protest in Benghazi erupted after a similar demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday evening by fundamentalist Muslims who were angered by clips that circulated online, and were purported to be produced by a U.S.-based director, that characterized the Prophet Muhammad in an unflattering light.
Contravening the Islamic prohibition of portraying the prophet, clips from the film show him not only as flesh and blood-but as a homosexual son of undetermined patrimony, who rises to advocate child slavery and extramarital sex, for himself, in the name of religion.
YouTube has continued to leave the video on its site, but has blocked access to it in Egypt. The Google-Inc.-owned video site did not immediately comment.
Egyptian protesters climbed the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and replaced the flag with a black standard bearing an Islamic inscription, in protest of a film deemed offensive to the Prophet Muhammad. Matt Bradley has details on The News Hub.
Throughout the day Wednesday, regular Libyans lighted up Twitter and Facebook to condemn the killings of the U.S. diplomats and plan demonstrations in the Tripoli and Benghazi against religious violence.
Political parties founded by fundamentalism Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood fared poorly in the country’s first election after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, garnering a minority of seats in the new national congress, bucking a trend seen in other post-Arab Spring nations like Egypt and Tunisia.
However, the lack of centralized law and order has given radical groups space in which to work without fear of arrest.
The attack on the U.S. consulate was the second this year. In June, suspected Islamic militants detonated an improvised explosive device at the same compound. A Libyan guard was injured, but no Americans were harmed. In the spring, the International Committee for the Red Cross offices in Benghazi were also targeted.
A man in Benghazi waves his rifle as buildings and cars are enveloped in flames inside the U.S. Consulate. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. diplomats were killed in the attack, which was condemned by President Obama.
Washington has long been leery of the radical Islamic fringe in Libya. The largest number of foreign fighters in Iraq waging battles against U.S. soldiers were from two towns in eastern Libya, and U.S. drones have monitored those locations since the Libyan uprising last year.
Ambassador Stevens, 52 years old, was both well-known and well-liked among Libyans. He had held two previous posts in Libya, as deputy chief of the U.S. mission between 2007 and 2009 and then as envoy to the Transitional National Council during the Libyan uprising in 2011, the State Department said.
Mr. Stevens was born and raised in California and had been an international trade lawyer before joining the diplomatic corps in 1991. A fluent Arabic speaker, he previously held diplomatic postings in Jerusalem, Damascus and Cairo.
Mrs. Clinton’s statement identified another of those killed in Benghazi as Sean Smith, a foreign service information-management officer who was the father of two. The names of the remaining two diplomats were being withheld pending notification of their families, according to U.S. officials.
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