(Adds quotes, background, detail)
By Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Mohammed Abbas
TRIPOLI/LONDON, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Britain urged its
nationals to leave the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on
Thursday, citing a "specific and imminent" threat to Westerners
days after a deadly attack by Islamist militants in neighbouring
Britain's Foreign Office declined to give details of the
nature of the threat, but has warned in the past of the long
reach of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African wing
of al Qaeda.
At least 38 hostages were killed in an attack on the remote
In Amenas gas complex in Algeria, about 100 kms (60 miles) from
the Libyan border. French forces are also fighting Islamist
rebels in Mali.
"We are now aware of a specific and imminent threat to
Westerners in Benghazi, and urge any British nationals who
remain there against our advice to leave immediately," the
Foreign Office said in a statement.
Few Westerners are believed to be in Benghazi, which has
experienced a wave of violence targeting foreign diplomats,
military and police officers, including an attack in September
that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
A spokeswoman for the British embassy in Tripoli said the
number of British nationals in Benghazi was small, but could not
comment on specific numbers.
Last week Italy suspended activity at its Benghazi consulate
and withdrew staff after a gun attack on its consul.
Coupled with the Algeria hostage crisis - a plan believed to
have been conceived in Mali - Western governments are now on
"The situation in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) is not just
worrying, it is incredibly worrying. Everybody is on alert," a
Western diplomat said. "But in light of the events recently (in
Algeria and Mali), this could be a precautionary measure."
Saad al-Saitim, deputy head of the Benghazi Local Council,
said the warning was a setback, inciting "more fear at a time
when people need to stand with us".
"Following the Mali events, foreigners are worried and are
taking precautionary steps. Benghazi hardly has any foreigners
at the moment and few foreign consulates," he said.
British Airways said it would continue operating
flights to the Libyan capital Tripoli. The airline operates
three flights a week between London's Heathrow airport and
Tripoli. Its next flight to Libya is scheduled for Sunday.
The eastern city of Benghazi was the cradle of the 2011
revolution that toppled former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and
Libya has been awash with weapons since then, its shaky nascent
institutions struggling to rein in armed groups.
Benghazi in particular has been the scene of power struggles
between various armed Islamist factions. U.S. intelligence
officials say Islamist militants with ties to al Qaeda
affiliates were most likely involved in the deadly Sept. 11
assault on the U.S. mission in the city, Libya's second biggest.
While Britain's move may be only precautionary, it is
unlikely to inspire confidence in a country keen to attract
foreign cash and developers for its oil fields and other sectors
after years of chronic under-investment and war.
The bulk of Libya's oil wealth, around 80 percent, is
located in the east of the country but the oil installations are
far from Benghazi and oil is not piped through there.
Giuma Attaigha, deputy leader of the ruling general national
congress, told Reuters Libya must make foreigners feel safe.
"This statement is a cause of concern and we hope it is just
precautionary because it is the right of any country to take
care of its people when it feels that they are in danger," he
"This forces all of us, starting with the security forces in
the interior ministry, to take all necessary steps and quickly
to make the foreigners feel safe and to protect citizens in
Benghazi against terrorism."
(Additional reporting by Rhys Jones, Ali Shuaib in Tripoli and
Ghaith Shennib in Benghazi; Writing by Mohammed Abbas; Editing
by Myra MacDonald)
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