Looted, ransacked and burned, the U.S. Embassy complex in Tripoli stands in ruins, a testament to the violence unleashed in the name of Moammar Gaddafi’s regime and its disregard of international law.

Throughout the embassy compound, everything that could have been broken has been. Balustrades have been ripped off, photocopiers and air-conditioning units smashed to smithereens, cabinets wrenched open and overturned. Whole floors were doused in gasoline and burned. Embassy documents, including torn photographs of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Biden, carpet the floors that escaped the flames.

The embassy was ransacked in the early hours of May 1, as were those of Britain and Italy, in response to the death of Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Arab and three of the Libyan autocrat’s grandchildren in a NATO airstrike. At the time, Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said mobs, some in the hundreds, had attacked the lightly guarded embassies. Kaim called it a “regrettable” event that outnumbered police forces were powerless to prevent.

But interviews with neighbors and witnesses paint a different picture of events that night. They said that roughly 20 people arrived at the U.S. Embassy complex about 2:30 a.m. in the trademark Toyota Tundras favored by the Libyan security forces and that at least some of them were in army uniforms. They used a shotgun or heavy machine gun to blast open the compound’s imposing steel doors, witnesses said, before calling others to join them.

“It was something very scary,” said Abdullah el-Bouzedi, 56, who lives by the embassy and rented land to the Americans for their parking lot. “It was so loud we thought at first it was from NATO.”

Witnesses said the group looted some items from the embassy, including televisions and chandeliers, and left about 4 a.m. But in the subsequent hours, busloads of cheering and chanting Gaddafi supporters apparently showed up in what neighbors said looked like an organized excursion. By morning, smoke was rising from several of the buildings in the embassy compound.

Neighbors said policemen told them that they were under orders not to prevent the looting. The Gaddafi regime’s green flag was draped on the embassy roof, and its slogan, “Allah, Moammar, Libya, bas [that’s all],” was daubed on the walls.

There were similar events at the British ambassador’s residence that morning, another witness said, with mobs sauntering through the complex while police sat and watched, the elderly caretaker of the building in tears at the destruction of its collection of priceless antiques.

The U.S. Embassy was more modern and nowhere as grand as the British properties. But the sense of loss at the destruction was no less real for the American staffers as they later watched a video posted on YouTube that showed the looters casually wandering through the wreckage in broad daylight.

“That was the saddest point,” Ambassador Gene Cretz said in June. “At least there was a hope up until then that we could go back. That kind of brought home the reality — if we went back, we would have to start at ground zero again.”

The embassy had been abandoned in February as Tripoli erupted in gunfire, a Lonely Planet guidebook to Egypt and a half-finished bag of Doritos evidence of the haste in which staff members left. It was first U.S. diplomatic mission to shut completely in 12 years.

Deputy Chief of Mission Joan Polaschik, whose business cards still litter the floor, stayed up the night before the final evacuation, destroying computers. After a hair-raising escape from Libya, staff members eventually reunited in Washington to set up a sort of embassy-in-exile.

This week, State Department officials declined to speculate on when they might be able to reopen the embassy, a symbolically important event that will further convey U.S. support for the rebels’ Transitional National Council as the legitimate government of Libya.

The Obama administration’s special representative to Libya, Chris Stevens, has been working from the eastern city of Benghazi, where much of the rebel council’s leadership remains concentrated. U.S. officials are preparing to send an advance team to Tripoli to assess security and gauge the extent of damage to the embassy.

“We need to do a little bit of work to establish the condition of the building itself, but we are making plans for those moves even as we speak,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday. “But it’s premature to tell you exactly when we’ll be ready to open.”

Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.

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