CAIRO – After days of heavy combat among militias that highlights the chaos in Libya, the U.S. Embassy has been closed and its staff taken to safety in neighboring Tunisia, the State Department said Saturday.
Scores of people have been killed and injured in the battles, which have raged for weeks and shut down the international airport in Tripoli, the capital.
The U.S. Embassy is near where some of the heaviest fighting has occurred, and the rival militias are armed with heavy weapons that fell into their hands after the uprising three years ago that toppled leader Moammar Gadhafi. Several other embassies have been abandoned, and United Nations missions and aid groups also have fled.
According to news accounts, about 150 U.S. personnel made the journey to Tunisia. The Pentagon said the evacuation took about five hours. It occurred under the protection of U.S. F-16 fighters and other aircraft.
For months, the weakness of Libya’s central government has left the country vulnerable to militia-instigated violence. The armed groups, which often break down along ethnic, regional or sectarian lines, were allies in the fight against Gadhafi, but have since turned on one another in a scramble for power and oil wealth.
The latest battles in Tripoli have mainly been between Islamists from the western city of Misurata and another armed group, the Zintan militia, which took control of the airport months ago and had been put on the government payroll to provide security there.
In an official travel warning, the State Department also urged all Americans who remain in the country to leave immediately, saying the situation is “unpredictable and unstable.”
It said extremist groups in Libya this year had made “several specific threats” against U.S. citizens and interests in the country, and warned that Americans may be risking “kidnapping, violent attacks, or death.”
The threat to U.S. personnel in Libya has been especially sensitive since September 2012, when the U.S. diplomatic compound in the eastern city of Benghazi was attacked and Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.