U.S. Pulls Embassy Staff from Libya After Militia Clashes in Tripoli

Smoke over Airport Road
Smoke rises over the Airport Road area after heavy fighting between rival militias broke out near the airport in Tripoli July 25, 2014. Hani Amara/Reuters

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - The United States evacuated its embassy in Libya on Saturday, driving its staff under heavy military guard across the border to Tunisia because of escalating clashes between rival militias inTripoli, the U.S. State Department said.

Security in the Libyan capital has deteriorated following two weeks of fighting between brigades of former rebel fighters who have exchanged rocket, cannon and artillery fire in southern Tripoli near the embassy compound.

"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," a U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement.

F-16 fighters and Osprey aircraft had provided security during the five-hour drive to Tunisia and there were no incidents.

The United Nations has already pulled its staff out of the North African state, and Turkey has suspended its embassy operations because of the violence in Tripoli.

Turkey has removed about 700 personnel from the country, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Paris before holding talks there with Turkish and Qatari counterparts on the Middle East.

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

The clashes for control of Tripoli International Airport are the latest eruption in a deepening rivalry among bands of ex-fighters who once battled side by side against Muammar Gaddafi, but have since 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 had entrenched themselves in other parts of the capital.

Heavily armed, they have sided with competing political forces vying to shape the future of Libya in the messy transition since the end of Gaddafi's four-decade rule.