US commandos violated Libya's sovereignty when they seized the suspected ringleader of a deadly 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, the foreign ministry said yesterday.
Special forces carried out Sunday's stealth operation under cover of night, capturing Ahmed Abu Khatallah (pictured) near Benghazi and spiriting him out of the country. "The government condemns this regrettable infringement on Libya's sovereignty," foreign ministry spokesman Said Lassoued said in a statement, adding that Tripoli had not been informed in advance. Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby has not said whether Washington gave Libya advance notice.
Libyan Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani said yesterday that there was already an outstanding arrest warrant for Abu Khatallah. But he said Libyan security forces had not been able to arrest him because of the security situation in the flashpoint eastern city of Benghazi. Lassoued underlined in his statement "Libya's right to judge Abu Khattalah on its soil in conformity with its law, and asks the American government to return him to Libya".
AbuKhattala lived openly in the Benghazi - he was seen at cafes and in public places - even after the US named him and another militant as suspects in the attack two years ago that killed the US ambassador to Libya. "I am in my city, having a normal life and have no troubles," he said late last year after he was first accused. He denied the allegations and said he did not fear being abducted.
That changed on Sunday. His was the first US apprehension of an alleged perpetrator in the assault that killed ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Abu Khattala is being held in an undisclosed location and will be tried in a US court.
The US told the UN Security Council that Abu Khattala had been planning to target more Americans. "The measures … were taken in accordance with the United States' inherent right of self-defence," US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, wrote in a letter obtained yesterday.
Abu Khattala was the commander of a militant group called the Abu Obaida bin Jarrah Brigade. Washington has accused him of being a member of the Ansar al-Shariah group, believed to be behind the attack and listed by the US as a terrorist group in January.
A witness said Abu Khattala was at the consulate assault, directing fighters. He admitted being there, but said he was helping in the rescue of trapped men. "It was the first time I learned that there was a US consulate in this place," he said a month after the attack.
Additional reporting by Reuters, Associated Press