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US evacuates embassy in Libya

Black plumes of smoke are seen in the vicinity of Camp Thunderbolt in Benghazi, Libya, after clashes between militants, former rebel fighters and government forces on Saturday. Tripoli was quieter after the U.S. evacuation, but at least 10 people were killed and 50 more injured in in Benghazi, security and hospital sources said. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON — With Libya at its most violent since its 2011 uprising, the United States drove its embassy staff and military personnel Saturday to neighboring Tunisia with U.S. military escorts flying overhead.

The embassy staff will leave Tunisia and work in other embassies around the region and in Washington.

Deborah Jones, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, will work from the U.S. Embassy in Valletta, Malta, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

The decision to evacuate the 158 Americans, including Marines, from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, the Libya capital, was an acknowledgment by the Obama administration of a collapsing situation, just three years after U.S. and NATO forces helped rebels bring down the four-decade rule of Moammar Gadhafi.

Violence had once been largely limited to eastern Libya, where, in the city of Benghazi, extremists killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans during a Sept. 11 2012, attack on the U.S. mission and CIA compound there. But in the past few months, western Libya, which includes the capital, battles erupted between Islamist and secular forces seeking control of the country.

“Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya,” Harf said.

Rival militia, paid by Libya’s flailing government and armed with grenades and anti-aircraft launchers, have fought for weeks for control of Tripoli’s main airport, destroying it and most of the airplanes parked there. Islamist militias from the city of Misrata sought unsuccessfully to wrest control of the airport from a rival secular militia from Zintan.

The militias were born during the 2011 uprising that led to Gadhafi’s fall and have since fought for power in Libya’s new government. With no national security force in the early days of the post-Gaddafi period, the government put them on the government payroll.

With the airport closed, the United States lost a means to evacuate its staff, which in the last few months had been whittled down to the bare minimum. In addition to the battle between militias, there was a number of kidnappings and assassinations of prominent liberal activists across the capital.

The United Nations had already has evacuated its personnel.

It was unclear how the United States would secure the embassy, which is in the middle of Tripoli, from potential looting, given that Marines were among those who evacuated the site.

For the past two months, the U.S. military increasingly moved resources near Tripoli in anticipation of an evacuation as the State Department assessed how long it could stay. In May, the U.S. military moved the USS Bataan, with 1,000 Marines on board, toward the Libyan coast.

Before evacuating the embassy, “classified holdings were destroyed in accordance with procedures. Some classified equipment not normally destroyed was taken out,” Harf said.

Three F-16 fighters provided air support and Osprey aircraft carrying Marines flew overhead the U.S. convoy as a precaution, but there were no incidents during the five-hour drive from Tripoli to Tunisia, U.S. officials said.

“Security has to come first. Regrettably, we had to take this step because the location of our embassy is in very close proximity to intense fighting and ongoing violence between armed Libyan factions,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement.

The State Department spokeswoman said embassy staff would return to Tripoli once it was deemed safe. Until then, embassy operations would be conducted from elsewhere in the region and Washington.

Since one militia attacked Tripoli airport two weeks ago, fighting has killed at least 50 people in the capital, shut down most international flights and forced the United Nations and Turkey to pull out their diplomatic staff.

Tripoli was quieter after the evacuation. But at least 25 people were killed in a day of clashes between Libyan special forces and Islamist militants who are entrenched in the eastern city of Benghazi, security and hospital sources said.

Speaking to reporters in Paris before holding talks on the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry described Libya’s situation of “free-wheeling militia violence” as a real risk to U.S. staff with clashes around the embassy.

The battle for control of Tripoli International Airport is the latest eruption in a rivalry among bands of ex-fighters who once battled side by side against Gaddafi. Since then, they have turned against each other in the scramble for control.

Since the 2011 fall of Tripoli, fighters from the western town of Zintan and allies have controlled the area including the international airport, while rivals loyal to the port city of Misrata entrenched themselves in other parts of the capital.

Three years after Gaddafi’s demise, Libya’s transition to democracy is faltering, and its fragile government and nascent armed forces are unable to impose authority over the brigades of former fighters.

Many ex-fighters on the government payroll as semi-official security forces, but often pay little heed to the central government, each brigade claiming to be a legitimate force and the successors of the 2011 revolution.

<i>Reuters contributed to this report.</i>