The United States and Britain are withdrawing some of the staff from their embassies in Tripoli, Libya because of a standoff between the government and heavily armed militias blockading parts of the capital, embassy officials said Friday.
The move to evacuate non-essential diplomatic personnel comes after a bombing at the French Embassy last month that injured two security gendarmes. In a joint statement issued Wednesday, the United States, Britain and France called on Libyans to “refrain from armed protest and violence during this difficult time in the democratic transition.”
The statement came as heavily armed militias refused to ease their blockade of key government ministries, even after forcing the government to give in on their main demand – getting the General National Congress to ban from public office associates and employees of the late Libyan dictator, Moammar Gadhafi. The militias have maintained their siege of government ministries for more than a week.
That exclusion law was passed last Sunday and will go into effect next month. But the hardcore militias have added additional demands, including the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. They say they won’t release their chokehold on the government until they are sure the cleansing of the government of Gadhafi-era officials goes ahead.
Small number of diplomats involved
The evacuation of the non-essential U.S. and British diplomatic staff involves small numbers of personnel. The embassies had not been fully staffed since last September when militants attacked U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
In Washington, the State Department issued a travel warning for Libya on Friday, advising that it had ordered a number of diplomatic personnel to leave Tripoli.
The evacuation is being seen as an indication of serious anxiety in Washington and London about the security situation in Libya.
“The non-essential staff withdrawal, which is temporary, is to do with the continuing political volatility,” a British diplomat told VOA. “The numbers are small and mainly involve staff who have not been able to do very much because of the political flux involving the ministries. They have not been able to gain access to the ministries because of the militia blockades of the buildings.”
The British Foreign Office announced in London that the evacuation is taking place because of the heightened political tensions in Libya.
“In light of this political volatility, there is a potential for violence and clashes between rival armed groups,” the Foreign Office said on its website. It is urging all British citizens to avoid all but essential travel to Tripoli and other key cities, and not to travel at all to Benghazi and the rest of the country.
Additional militia demands
The additional militia demands now include not only Zeidan's resignation, but also the freezing of the state budget for this year and the right of the militias to form a committee to take over the Foreign Ministry.
Prime Minister Zeidan has promised not to use violence in the current standoff, although it isn’t clear what official security forces he could call on in the event he decided to use force.
The Defense Ministry has few soldiers under its direct command and relies operationally on the militias. The Interior Ministry has few forces of its own able to confront well-armed militiamen.
In recent days, members of the Libyan Shield Force, a coalition of militias that officially come under the defense ministry, have been spotted supporting the blockades. And the blockading militiamen, who mainly come from the town of Misrata but also include a sprinkling of mainly Islamist militiamen from other major towns, have been demanding that the chief of staff of the armed forces, Major-General Yousef Mangoush, be replaced.
Militia leaders have said they are trying to correct the “course of the revolution,” a phrase they often use when asked about their overall strategy.
Zeidan has urged Libyans to rally behind the government, but pro-government protests have attracted small numbers of demonstrators -- never going above about 200 -- not enough to help swing the struggle in the government’s favor.
Libya’s population appears divided. The Zeidan government has not been popular because of the slow pace of improvement in the everyday lives of Libyans. But there is growing impatience with the tactics of the militias as well.
“They are acting as though they own the country,” shop owner Ahmed Tawashi says of the militias. “We didn’t elect these people.”
Western diplomats warned earlier this week that the way the government was forced to pass a law excluding former Gadhafi associates amounted to a “legal coup” that would help strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood and smaller Islamist parties.
Fault lines are beginning to appear within the militias. Earlier this week, some militias not involved in the blockades came out in support of the government. The pro-government militiamen warned that if the current crisis isn’t resolved soon, they would form a national force to deal with the anti-government militias and dislodge them from Tripoli.
"If you do not respond to our demands, we will form a common national force from all the cities of Libya to handle this situation," the group said Wednesday. Its members included federalists from the eastern part of the country and some militia leaders from Benghazi.
“The most powerful and influential militias appear to be against the government,” said an American security official.
The sieges have been organized by the Higher Council of the Revolutionaries that has among its leaders members of the Muslim Brotherhood and smaller Islamist parties that failed to do well in last July elections.