EU reviews safety of Libya diplomats

13.09.12 @ 09:29

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - The EU's foreign service is considering whether to temporarily close its office in Benghazi after the killing of the US ambassador to Libya in the city on Tuesday (11 September).

  • Ashton personally opened the Benghazi office on a visit to Libya last year (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

The small EU unit, a secure building protected by Hungarian private security firm Argus, hosts two locally-hired European External Action Service (EEAS) staff.

EEAS chief Catherine Ashton opened it at the height of the Libya conflict in May last year as a sign of support for the then Benghazi-based rebel National Transitional Council, saying: "We are here for the long term ... We will be here to support you all the way."

One EU source told EUobserver on Wednesday: "A decision will have to be taken regarding the Benghazi office ... One solution would be to close it temporarily. But we must wait for more information."

Another EU contact said: "We have time. We don't need to switch off the lights right after this incident."

He added that "nobody is considering the closure of Tripoli," a bigger EEAS delegation in the Libyan capital headed by former Slovak diplomat Peter Zsoldos.

The EU sources noted that the security environment in Tripoli is "totally different" to the Benghazi-Sirte region, where the local population has a higher proportion of jihadists, including "about 300" individuals linked to Al-Qaeda.

They said some 70 fighters from the Ansar Al Sharia militant group attacked the US consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday night. US marines, local Libyan police and NTC forces "resisted for 25 to 30 minutes" before the compound was overrun.

It is unclear whether the US ambassador, 52-year-old Chris Stevens, died in a burning car while trying to escape, or whether he suffocated due to smoke in the consulate's safe room.

A US state department official and three other people were also killed. The EU sources said the three others were two US marines and a locally-hired US consular official.

The attack was linked to Muslim anger over a recent movie - entitled the "Innocence of Muslims" - by a US-based film-maker mocking the prophet Mohammed.

It also took place on the 21st anniversary of 9/11.

Meanwhile, photos of what appear to be Stevens' dead body - seen by this website - resemble images of the late Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi's body being manhandled by Libyan civilians in October last year.

For his part, US President Barack Obama on Wednesday sent two warships and a team of marines to the region. "Make no mistake, justice will be done," he told press in the White House garden.

Ashton said she is "deeply shocked" and urged Libyan authorities "to take all necessary measures without delay to protect the lives of all diplomats and foreign staff working in Libya."

UK foreign minister William Hague said the attacks are "a reminder of the continuing need to bring law and order to all parts of Libya."

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius called it a "terrorist attack," adding: "Despite this tragedy, we must not renounce our objective of building a free and democratic Libya."

Morsi visit amid crisis

The events come on the eve of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's visit to the EU capital on Thursday.

The recently-elected leader, from the Muslim Brotherhood party, is expected to seek pledges of billions of euros in financial aid.

The US embassy in Cairo was this week also pelted with rocks and molotov cocktails over the Innocence of Muslims film.

Morsi in a statement on his Facebook page said he "condemns in the strongest terms the attempt of a group to insult the place of the messenger, the prophet Mohammed," referring to the movie.

He also said Egypt is "responsible" for protecting foreign diplomatic staff.

He did not directly condemn the Benghazi murders, however.