(CNSNews.com) – The State Department on Tuesday warned American citizens not to travel to Libya and urged those there to leave immediately.
The embassy in Tripoli has not been evacuated, although the administration began positioning military assets in Sicily last week to carry out a potential emergency extraction if deemed necessary. The amphibious assault ship USS Bataan moved into the Mediterranean Sea.
“This is a portion of a special purpose Marine Air-Guard task force crisis response that’s moved to a naval air station in Sicily,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a briefing. “This positioning was done in the event these resources are needed in the future.”
“We continue to review the situation and address embassy security needs,” Psaki said.
The travel warning said the staffing at the embassy has been limited, “due to security concerns,” and that the mission could offer only “very limited emergency services to U.S. citizens.”
Several other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Jordan, have closed their diplomatic missions in Libya and evacuated staff in recent weeks.
The advisory to U.S. citizens was issued after a terrorist group implicated in the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Ansar al-Shariah, declared war against a renegade general who has been fighting Islamists, accusing him of being backed by the United States.
Ansar al-Shariah leader Mohammed al-Zahawi in a televised press conference called Gen. Khalifa Hifter an “American agent.” According to the Associated Press, Zahawi said if the U.S. continued to back him it would face a “shameful defeat.”
He also accused Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of supporting Hifter.
Ansar al-Shariah, which has ties to al-Qaeda, is suspected of having played a key role in the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, which cost the lives of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith and Navy Seals Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
The State Department says there has been no contact with Hifter, and that the U.S. is giving him neither “implicit” nor “explicit” support.
Hifter (Hiftar, Haftar), a controversial figure who once served as chief of staff for the late Muammar Gaddafi, then fought against his regime during the 2011 uprising and has now turned on Islamist militias with whom he had been allied during that campaign.
This month he launched what he dubbed the “Dignity Operation,” aimed at defeating the militias which have refused to disarm and continue to cause chaos in Libya, as well as the Islamist-dominated parliament, the General National Congress (GNC).
About 70 people were killed in fighting in Benghazi in mid-May between forces loyal to Hifter and militias including Ansar al-Shariah.
In its advisory, the State Department described the security situation in Libya today as “unpredictable and unstable.”
“Various groups have called for attacks against U.S. citizens and U.S. interests in Libya. Extremist groups in Libya have made several specific threats this year against U.S. government officials, citizens, and interests in Libya,” it said.
“Because of the presumption that foreigners, especially U.S. citizens, in Libya may be associated with the U.S. government or U.S. NGOs, travelers should be aware that they may be targeted for kidnapping, violent attacks, or death. U.S. citizens currently in Libya should exercise extreme caution and depart immediately.”
Libya’s political situation is also in turmoil. The GNC this month elected an Islamist-backed businessman, Ahmed Maiteg, as prime minister – Libya’s third since March – but non-Islamist lawmakers rejected the vote and many Libyans have been demonstrating against the GNC. The government last week announced new parliamentary elections would be held on June 25.
On Tuesday gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades at Maiteg’s home, although he was unharmed.
The U.S. administration is urging dialogue and an end to violence. In a joint statement with several European governments on Saturday it called “on all sides to refrain from the use of force and to address differences by political means.”
The statement, which warned that Libya risked “chaos, fragmentation, violence and terrorism,” backed plans to hold parliamentary elections “as soon as possible,” and voiced support for the long-delayed drafting of a new constitution.