x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Search for answers over US envoy killing is in muddy waters

Accounts by witnesses and the head of investigations into the death of J Christopher Stevens do not rule out extremist groups whose strong growth the new Libya has failed to stem. Alice Fordham reports from Benghazi

Demonstrators in Benghazi hold a message during a rally to condemn the killers of the US ambassador to Libya, J Christopher Stevens, and the attack on the US consulate.
Demonstrators in Benghazi hold a message during a rally to condemn the killers of the US ambassador to Libya, J Christopher Stevens, and the attack on the US consulate.

BENGHAZI // There was a ghostly calm to the sooty rooms and shattered chandeliers of the US consulate in Benghazi yesterday.

But frantic activity rippled from the centre of the disaster as investigators, diplomats and locals sought answers about Tuesday's attack that killed the US ambassador to Libya, J Christopher Stevens, and at least three others.

Reasons for the attack remained murky, but accounts by witnesses and the head of investigations did not rule out an organised strike by an extremist group.

A team led by Wanis Al Sharif, the interior ministry deputy for eastern Libya, has drawn together several branches of the security forces, but as yet no US team, to investigate.

Mr Al Sharif says arrests have been made and that more people are being monitored.

Mustafa Abu Shagur, Libya's prime minister, told AFP yesterday that "big advances have been made" in the investigation.

On some details, several accounts seem to tally.

About the time of the sunset prayer on Tuesday, three or four cars of armed men arrived on the rutted road leading to the compound, according to a consulate worker who saw the event, and Mr Al Sharif, who said he had a phone call telling him of the situation.

The employee, who asked to be identified as Mohammed, said about 20 men with big beards and cropped robes left the cars.

He said they made their way along the side of the compound, where they scaled the walls, crying "God is greatest".

The men crossed the front garden of the compound, and immediately began firing rocket-propelled grenades at a small building that held about five members of the Libyan security forces, who returned fire.

The clash set ablaze the security forces' quarters, and then the house where the ambassador and an unknown number of consulate staff were situated.

As the clashes continued and reinforcements to the security forces arrived, some Americans were evacuated from the back of the building by soldiers, said Mohammed.

But more and more armed supporters of the men described as extremists arrived and came into the compound, overpowering the security forces and beginning a frenzy of burning and looting.

Mr Al Sharif's version differed in that he described, from the vantage point of a control room in which members of various security force branches supplied him with information, a gathering crowd outside the consulate.

They condemned the film defaming the Prophet Mohammed and the failure of US authorities to apologise for it. The crowd grew out of control and stormed through the gates after hearing gunshots from inside.

Most had sidearms or rifles, Mr Al Sharif said, and a few had RPGs. It was at this time that two unidentified Americans were killed.

He said he had warned US officials to evacuate the compound but they ignored him, and that he told about 15 members of the Libyan security forces outside the compound to withdraw, fearing that they would provoke the rioters.

Mr Al Sharif said he was trying to avoid a repeat of an attack on the Italian Embassy, at the height of a scandal over a cartoon depicting the Prophet, in which several people died.

Later he sent local security forces in plain clothes to help to evacuate the Americans, but the ambassador never left the compound.

The owner of the house, Mohammed Al Breshi, suggested it had been impossible to reach the ambassador's quarters, which had a wrought-iron door that was still locked, and that Stevens had become unconscious as a result of smoke inhalation.

Mr Al Sharif said members of the security forces removed the ambassador from the house and he was taken to the nearby Benghazi Medical Centre.

Doctors at the centre confirmed that the ambassador had been admitted about 1am, all but dead, and did not respond to attempts to resuscitate him. Looters had long since overrun the compound when morning came, but the ordeal was not over.

Mr Al Sharif said marines arrived by plane to evacuate consulate staff hiding in nearby a safe house, but as they and a Libyan escort approached the house, an ambush attack using RPGs killed two Americans, injured 12 more and 17 of the Libyan security forces.

By no means could all the violence be blamed on a protest that got out of hand, he conceded.

"The first part was chaotic, and disorganised. The second part was organised and planned," said Mr Al Sharif.

He denied that local hardliners, Ansar Al Sharia, were involved, despite some rioters claiming allegiance to the group.

But he said: "There are millions of weapons across the country … and there are a lot of groups with different agendas. There are criminals among them, individual acts, group acts, and us as the government, we are still weak - we could be outgunned and outnumbered."

Mr Al Sharif added sadly that he thought it was more than likely such groups had infiltrated the security services.

It is a concern among the international community that violent and anti-western groups have been able to grow after what seemed to be pro-democratic revolutions last year.

"This shows you that there are going to be a lot of bad derivatives of the revolutions … but the power of the Libyan government to keep such elements in check remains weak, especially in the east of the country," said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Peter Cole, an expert on Libyan security, said the uneasy transfer of groups from rebel militias to security forces has seen at least four often competing branches of the security services created in Benghazi.

With recent car bombs in Tripoli and the demolition of Sufi shrines by extremists, the signs are that extremist violence could be allowed to become more prevalent.

"This is not a new thing, it's just a shocking thing," said Mr Cole.