TRIPOLI, Libya — An Islamist-allied militia group in control of Libya’s capital now guards the U.S. Embassy and its residential compound, commanders said Sunday, as onlookers toured the abandoned homes of diplomats who fled the country more than a month ago.
An Associated Press journalist saw holes left by small-arms and rocket fire dotting the residential compound, reminders of weeks of violence between rival militias over control of Tripoli that sparked the evacuation.
The breach of a deserted U.S. diplomatic post — as well as video images of men swimming in the compound’s algae-filled pools — is likely to reinvigorate debate in the United States about its role in Libya, more than three years after it supported rebels who toppled dictator Moammar Gaddafi. It also comes just before the second anniversary of the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
Moussa Abu-Zaqia, a commander of the Dawn of Libya group, told the AP that his forces had been guarding the residential compound since last week, a day after they seized control of the capital and its international airport after weeks of fighting with a rival militia. Abu-Zaqia said the rival militia from Zintan was in the compound before his troops took it over.
On Sunday night, a senior State Department official said: “We’ve seen the reports and videos and are seeking additional details. At this point we believe the embassy compound itself remains secure, but we continue to monitor the situation on the ground, which remains very fluid.”
The official added: “The primary reason the United States temporarily relocated our personnel and operations from Tripoli recently was the ongoing fighting between militias occurring very close to our compound.”
Some windows at the compound had been broken, but it appeared that most of the equipment there remained untouched. The AP journalist saw treadmills, weight benches and protein bars in the compound’s abandoned gym. Forks, knives and napkins set for a banquet were on one table, while a cantina still had cornflakes, vinegar, salt and pepper sitting out.
Some papers lay strewn on the floor, but it didn’t appear that the villas in the compound had been ransacked.
Hassan Ali, another Dawn of Libya commander, said his fighters saw “small fires and a little damage” before they chased the rival Zintan militia out of the residential compound.
“We entered and put some of our fighters to secure this place, and we preserved this place as much as we could,” he said.
Abu-Zaqia said his militia had asked cleaners to come to spruce up the grounds.
He added that the U.S. Embassy staff members “are most welcome in God’s blessing, and any area that is controlled by Dawn of Libya is totally secure and there are no troubles at all.”
A third Dawn of Libya commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak by his leaders, told the AP that the U.S. Embassy, about a half a mile away, also was under guard by his militiamen.
“We’ve secured the location and the assets of the embassy,” he said. “We’ve informed our command . . . immediately after entering the place following the exit of the rival militia. The place is secure and under protection.”
The commander did not elaborate, and the AP journalist could not reach the embassy. The Dawn of Libya militia is not associated with the extremist militia Ansar al-Shariah, which Washington blames for the deadly assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, that killed Stevens and the three other Americans.
A video posted online Sunday showed unarmed men playing in a pool at the compound and jumping into it from a second-story balcony. In a message on Twitter, U.S. Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones said the video appeared to have been shot in at the embassy’s residential annex, though she said she couldn’t “say definitively” since she wasn’t there.
“To my knowledge & per recent photos the US Embassy Tripoli chancery & compound is now being safeguarded and has not been ransacked,” she wrote on Twitter. She did not immediately respond to a request to elaborate. State Department officials in Washington also declined to immediately comment.