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British, U.S. diplomats out of Libya as militia fighting rages

By Alan Duke, CNN
updated 1:36 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • British diplomats are safe after attack on evacuation convoy
  • Germany renews an "urgent call for citizens to leave Libya"
  • "The situation in Libya is reaching a critical stage," envoys say
  • Dozens died in fighting in Benghazi on Saturday, reports say

(CNN) -- A convoy of British diplomats made it safely into Tunisia from Libya despite an attack on its vehicles Sunday, British officials said.

"There was an attempted carjacking of a British Embassy convoy this morning," UK Ambassador Michael Aron said in a Twitter posting Sunday. "Shots were fired at our vehicles but all safe." 

Several Western embassies, including those of Britain and the United States, were evacuated over the weekend as heavy militia violence raged in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

The German government renewed its "urgent call for citizens to leave Libya" because of the dangers of kidnappings and fighting.

Britain warned its citizens against all travel to Libya and asked that any of them in the country "leave now" by commercial means, which is made difficult by the limited flights out of the main airport.

Tripoli U.S. Embassy evacuated
Kerry: Libya evacuation not permanent

'Libya is reaching a critical stage'

Fighting in Tripoli and Benghazi is the worst seen since the revolution that overthrew the regime of Moammar Gadhafi nearly three years ago. The central government has been outgunned by increasingly powerful militias.

Witnesses reported heavy shelling and fighting around the Tripoli international airport Sunday, which has been under attack by an alliance of powerful militias from the city of Misrata and Islamist militias. The fighters are trying to take it from militias from the city of Zintan, which have controlled it since the 2011 revolution.

Dozens of people, including some women and children, died in fighting in Benghazi in recent days, according to the Libyan state news agency. Intense shelling continued Sunday, the reports said. Violence erupted in Benghazi last Monday when Islamist militias attacked military bases in the city.

The Libyan Health Ministry said at least 32 people who were killed and 62 wounded were taken to the Benghazi medical center on Saturday and Sunday.

The ministry counted at least 97 killed and 404 wounded in Tripoli over the past two weeks. The casualty numbers do not count those taken to smaller field hospitals.

Envoys from the Arab League, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Malta, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States issued a joint statement Saturday calling for "a ceasefire from all sides."

"The situation in Libya is reaching a critical stage. We are deeply concerned about the ongoing violence across the country and its humanitarian consequences," the envoys said. The statement called for "a willingness to compromise" by all sides in "an inclusive political dialogue on the back of the ceasefire agreement."

U.N. 'should play a leading role'

The United Nations "should play a leading role in reaching a ceasefire in conjunction with the Libyan government and other internal partners, with the full support of the international envoys," the statement said.

The U.N. and other international organizations and businesses temporarily evacuated staff from Libya earlier this month.

The envoys also said Libya's recently elected Council of Representatives "must have the opportunity to convene according to the time table set out in the law" and "carry out its tasks in a spirit of inclusiveness, moderation and in the interest of the country."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, at the U.S. Embassy in Paris meeting with the Turkish and Qatari foreign ministers Saturday, called upon various factions to engage in a political process, saying "the current course of violence would only bring chaos." Kerry added that due to the "freewheeling militia violence that is taking place in Tripoli" the U.S., along with other countries including Turkey, has "suspended our current diplomatic activities at the Embassy."

'Robust package of military forces' standing by

The U.S. evacuated its 150 personnel, including 80 U.S. Marines, from the embassy in Tripoli on Saturday. Their convoy drove across the border into Tunisia, U.S. officials confirm to CNN.

U.S. officials stress operations have been "temporarily suspended" until "the security situation on the ground improves." The embassy will continue to operate from other locations. A senior State Department official said some of the staff will be sent to other U.S. embassies in the region and others will return to Washington.

U.S. President Barack Obama approved the State Department recommendation to temporarily relocate personnel because of the "ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity" of the embassy, a White House official said.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the United States is "currently exploring options for a permanent return to Tripoli as soon as the security situation on the ground improves. In the interim, staff will operate from Washington and other posts in the region," Harf said in a statement.

"Securing our facilities and ensuring the safety of our personnel are top Department priorities, and we did not make this decision lightly. Security has to come first. Regrettably, we had to take this step because the location of our embassy is in very close proximity to intense fighting and ongoing violence between armed Libyan factions."

The Pentagon had a "robust package of military forces" in the vicinity but out of sight, ready to move in if the convoy of evacuees had come under attack. Two F-16s were on combat air patrol overhead, while a drone tracked the convoy to the border and a Navy destroyer watched from offshore in the Mediterranean, CNN learned. An "airborne response force" of several dozen Marines was on V-22 Osprey aircraft flying nearby, prepared to land and protect the Americans if they came under attack during the transit to the Tunisian border.

The Pentagon had pressed for weeks to evacuate the embassy, especially after the Tripoli airport came under repeated militia attack, leaving Americans no way to get out via commercial air, the official said. The decision to use vehicles to drive the Americans across the border was seen as the best low-profile approach to conducting the evacuation rather than sending U.S. military helicopters and troops into Tripoli.

This comes nearly two years after attacks on U.S. government facilities in the Libyan city of Benghazi. The assaults of September 11-12, 2012, left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, and spawned political controversy in Washington. Republican lawmakers have claimed the Obama administration tried to mislead the public about the cause of the attacks and should have done more to prevent them.

GOP critics say they plan to make Benghazi an issue for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, under whose watch the attacks occurred, should she decide to run for president.

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh and Brooke Bowman contributed to this report.

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