WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Members of a Libyan militia have taken over an annex of the U.S. embassy in Tripoli but have not broken into the main compound where the United States evacuated all of its staff last month, U.S. officials said on Sunday.
A YouTube video showed the breach of the vacated diplomatic facility by an armed group from the northwestern city of Misrata, with dozens of fighters seen crowding around a swimming pool and some diving in from the balcony of a nearby building.
It was not immediately known how close the annex, apparently made up of diplomatic residences, is to the embassy itself.
Libya has been rocked by the worst factional violence since the 2011 fall of Muammar Gaddafi, and a Misrata-led alliance, part of it which is Islamist-leaning, now controls the capital.
A takeover of the embassy compound could deliver another symbolic blow to Washington over its policy toward Libya, which Western governments fear is teetering toward becoming a failed state just three years after a NATO-backed war ended Gaddafi’s rule.
The United States evacuated its embassy in Tripoli on July 26, driving diplomats across the border into Tunisia under armed guard, amid escalating clashes between rival factions.
Security in Libya is an especially sensitive subject for the United States because of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, in which militants killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Republican lawmakers have kept up steady criticism of President Barack Obama over his administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack, and they have also cited Libya’s latest unrest as another example of what they see as the Democratic president’s failed policy in the volatile region.
U.S. Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones, in a message on Twitter, said the YouTube video appeared to show “a residential annex of the U.S. mission but cannot say definitively.”
Jones, now based in Malta, said, however, that the embassy compound “is now being safeguarded and has not been ransacked.”
The U.S. government believes the main embassy compound is still intact and has not been seized, a U.S. official in Washington told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Misrata-led groups refuse to recognize Libya’s central government and elected parliament, which have moved to the remote eastern city of Tobruk.
The Misrata forces have set up an alternative parliament which is assembling a rival government headed by Omar al-Hasi, an Islamist.
Hasi called on Saturday for diplomatic missions to return to Tripoli, saying foreigners would be protected.
The North African oil producer appears at risk of splitting or even sliding into civil war as political divisions and fighting among former rebels who helped topple Gaddafi have created uncertainty and chaos.