WASHINGTON — The State Department has shuttered the U.S. embassy in Libya and evacuated American staffers there as the security situation in the capital Tripoli deteriorates amid worsening clashes between rival militias.
The department said in a statement that American embassy staff left Tripoli on Saturday and traveled overland to neighboring Tunisia. Embassy operations in Tripoli will be suspended until the security situation improves, it said. Tripoli has been embroiled for weeks in inter-militia violence that has killed and wounded dozens on all sides. The fighting has been particularly intense at the city's airport.
Secretary of State John Kerry said "free-wheeling militia violence" prompted the move.
The evacuation was accompanied by a new State Department travel warning for Libya urging Americans not to go to the country and recommending that those already there leave immediately.
"The Libyan government has not been able to adequately build its military and police forces and improve security," it said. "Many military-grade weapons remain in the hands of private individuals, including anti-aircraft weapons that may be used against civilian aviation."
Speaking Saturday in Paris where he was meeting with other diplomats on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kerry said the U.S. remains committed to the diplomatic process in Libya despite the suspension of embassy activities there.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the evacuated employees will continue to work on Libyan issues in Tunis, elsewhere in North Africa and Washington.
"Securing our facilities and ensuring the safety of our personnel are top department priorities, and we did not make this decision lightly," Harf said. "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 suspension marks the second time in a little more than three years that Washington has closed its embassy in Libya. In Feb. 2011, the embassy suspended operations amid the uprising that eventually toppled longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi.
F-16 fighters and Osprey aircraft had provided security during the five-hour drive to Tunisia and there were no incidents.
The United Nations has already pulled its staff out of the North African state, and Turkey has suspended its embassy operations because of the violence in Tripoli.
Turkey has removed about 700 personnel from the country, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Paris before holding talks there with Turkish and Qatari counterparts on the Middle East.
The State Department spokeswoman said staff would return to Tripoli once it was deemed safe. Until then, embassy operations would be conducted from elsewhere in the region and Washington.
Since the 2011 fall of Tripoli, fighters from the western town of Zintan and allies have controlled the area including the international airport, while rivals loyal to the port city of Misrata had entrenched themselves in other parts of the capital.
Heavily armed, they have sided with competing political forces vying to shape the future of Libya in the messy transition since the end of Gadhafi's four-decade rule.
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