The Obama administration has withdrawn all official government personnel from Benghazi, the Libyan city where the country’s revolution was born and where the U.S. ambassador was killed last month, U.S. officials and local residents said Monday.
The State Department said that it has pulled its personnel from Benghazi and that any
diplomatic outreach to Libya’s second-largest city is being done remotely. The U.S. post where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in an attack by militants has been closed.
“Everybody who was in Benghazi and posted there has been withdrawn,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. She said she knew of no other U.S. government employees in the city to help investigate the attack or perform other work.
The pullout was described as a temporary precaution following what the administration is now calling a terrorist attack on two U.S. government compounds. Nonessential U.S. personnel also have been evacuated from the embassy in Tripoli, though it remains open.
Benghazi was the seat of rebel power during the uprising that eventually toppled strongman Moammar Gaddafi with the help of U.S., NATO and other militaries.
The main compound used by the American diplomats was unguarded Monday, although the gate was locked. In the first days after the attack, looters, curiosity-seekers and journalists roamed the burned-out buildings.
The FBI has been unable to set up operations in Benghazi as part of the investigation into the deaths of Stevens, information manager Sean Smith and government contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods. The absence complicates efforts to gather evidence and interview witnesses.
Several Libyans who provided security for the U.S. post said they have not been questioned by U.S. or Libyan authorities about the Sept. 11 assault. Others said that some witnesses had been flown to Tripoli, the capital, where U.S. officials say the FBI team is conducting its investigation.
“I don’t know why the Americans don’t come here,” said Wissam Bin Hamid, commander of the Libyan Shield Brigade, a militia that came under sustained attack while helping defend the second compound on Sept. 11. “Maybe they are afraid.”
Bin Hamid said that he has not been contacted but that an associate who was at the scene of the second attack flew to Tripoli to meet with the Americans.
Elaborating on earlier reports, Bin Hamid said he and two officials from another government-sanctioned militia met with three U.S. officials posted in Benghazi three days before the attack. The Americans called the two-hour meeting, Bin Hamid said, because they were concerned about security.
“They wanted to know who was in control in Benghazi,” Bin Hamid said. “It was like an introductory meeting. They asked us what we needed to bring security to Benghazi, what the Americans could possibly bring to help.”
Bin Hamid said the Libyans told the Americans that Benghazi was relatively safe, considering the widespread proliferation of weapons. But he said he was forced to reevaluate that judgment after the attack. A member of the other militia who attended the meeting confirmed the basic details.
The CIA pulled most or all its employees from Benghazi immediately after the attack, according to U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss intelligence movements.
Birnbaum reported from Benghazi.