US evacuates Libya embassy staff as fighting rages around airport
The United States evacuated its embassy staff in Libya under air cover yesterday as they faced a "real risk" from fierce fighting around Tripoli airport, Secretary of State John Kerry said.
The announcement came just hours after Libya's interim government warned that the clashes between militia vying for control of the strategic airport were threatening to tear the country apart.
The evacuation began at around 5am local time, with the sky over the capital filled with the sound of military jets and helicopters. A Libyan security source said the air operation was an escort for the convoy of embassy vehicles on the ground that headed west out of Tripoli overland for the safety of neighbouring Tunisia.
The fighting around the airport halted abruptly and the convoy sped out of the capital shortly afterwards, witnesses said.
The embassy was considered to be at risk as it is on the airport road, close to the scene of the fighting.
The State Department also issued an updated travel warning cautioning Americans against travelling to Libya, and urging all those in the country to "depart immediately".
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said the five-hour operation went off smoothly and was closely monitored from the air.
Libya's main international airport has been shut since the fighting erupted on July 13, in violence that has killed at least 47 people and wounded 120, according to Health Ministry figures.
Only on Friday night, the government had warned that the country could be torn apart by the clashes.
Calling for an end to the conflict around the airport, the government raised the spectre of "the collapse of the country" and "the destruction which could result from … endless war".
The clashes, the most violent since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, started with an assault on the airport by a coalition of groups, mainly Islamists, which has since been backed by fighters from Misrata.
The attackers are battling to flush out fellow former rebels from the hill town of Zintan, southwest of Tripoli, who have controlled the airport for the past three years. Both Zintan and Misrata were major bastions of the uprising that toppled and killed Gaddafi, and regional as well as ideological battles have fuelled a struggle for power ever since.