On June 10, two British bodyguards were injured in an attack in Benghazi on a convoy carrying the British ambassador. The assailants used rocket-propelled grenades to attack the convoy as it was pulling out of the British Consulate.
Militants also have been blamed for attacks on the Tunisian Consulate in Benghazi and on the International Committee of the Red Cross in Libya.
A senior Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, said there was a “robust American security presence” at the consulate. When asked whether security had been strengthened after the recent attacks, the official said, “We don’t ever talk about the details of those kinds of things.”
The most detail about the events that unfolded Tuesday night at the consulate came from the conference call and from interviews with U.S. intelligence officials along with witnesses, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.
According to these officials, the protest turned into a gun battle around 10 p.m., roughly half an hour after the convoy of militants arrived at the consulate. They said men in the crowd began firing at the consulate. Within 15 minutes, the assailants had broken through the gates, scaled the walls and set fire to the main building. Images captured at the scene showed structures and vehicles engulfed in flames.
Stevens’s friend said in an interview that he returned to the compound when he heard about the fighting and found a chaotic scene. “People were panicking and crying because they were shooting, and with the shooting and explosions, it was really chaos,” said the friend, who insisted on anonymity for fear of jeopardizing his safety.
Another witness, Ben Eissa el-Mahjoub, a member of a media team that was at the scene, said the incident was not a protest.
“Armed groups broke into the American consulate,” he said, with the consulate resisting from inside. He said the security teams had tried to protect the ambassador and the consulate. At one point, he said, someone fired a rocket-propelled grenade from the back of the crowd toward the compound.
A two-hour gun battle
While U.S. security personnel and Libyan guards returned fire, the embassy’s top security officer, who had accompanied the ambassador from Tripoli, tried to get Stevens and Smith to safety inside the consulate. In the smoke and chaos, they became separated. When the security officer made it outside, he could not find Stevens and Smith.
He summoned help and went back inside the burning building. The rescuers discovered Smith’s body, but the ambassador was nowhere to be found.
Under continuing fire, U.S. personnel and other consulate employees fled to an annex next door to the compound. That building, which has its own perimeter walls, came under fire that lasted two hours. Two more Americans were killed in the gun battle; they have not been identified, pending notification of their families.
Around 2 a.m. Wednesday, Libyan security forces and their U.S. counterparts were finally able to secure the compound and resume the search for the ambassador.
But at some point, Stevens had been taken from the consulate to Benghazi Medical Center. U.S. officials said it is unclear who took him or whether he was alive at the time. Photographs posted by Getty Images showed a figure identified as Stevens, his skin smudged with smoke residue, being dragged out by Libyans attempting a desperate rescue.
A senior official at the hospital said Stevens was dead when he arrived. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the situation publicly, said that “there were no signs of external injuries,” leading doctors to believe that he had died of asphyxiation. The hospital also received 15 Libyans with injuries that included gunshot wounds and fractures, the official said, but it did not treat any other Americans.
“It was rockets that came in that created the fire and smoke,” said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee. Casting doubt on the possibility that the attack was carried out by a disorganized mob, Ruppersberger said: “This rogue group had weapons. And they were able to shoot.”
Birnbaum reported from Cairo. Tara Bahrampour, Karen DeYoung, Julie Tate and Craig Whitlock in Washington and Ingy Hassieb in Cairo contributed to this report.