CAIRO -- Three European countries urged their citizens to leave the restive eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Thursday after Libyan officials found a threatening message against Europeans outside a foreign-run company, a Libyan congressman said Thursday.
Britain, Germany and the Netherlands urged their citizens to leave the city Thursday, calling the threat “imminent” but offering no specifics.
The warning came one day after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared on Capitol Hill and promised that her department would improve security after a Sept. 11 attack at the U.S. consulate and a CIA annex in Benghazi killed Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador there, and three other Americans. That other European nations no longer felt Benghazi was safe only underscored how little the newly elected Libyan government controls the security and how much militants move freely throughout eastern Libya.
The warning also comes one week after militants stormed a natural gas complex in Algeria just 38 miles from the Libyan border. It also could threaten oil production in Libya, which holds the largest crude oil reserves in Africa and is home to several foreign-run oil plants.
Abdel Rahman Sewehi, a member of Libya’s General National Congress and chairman of the defense committee, told McClatchy that earlier in the week officials in Benghazi discovered a message on a wall near a foreign company that threatened to kill Europeans in response to the French-led intervention in Mali.
“My explanation is that because of what is happening in Mali, they are taking the precaution in case Ansar al Shariah or someone attacks them because of Mali,” Sewehi said. “I don’t blame them.”
Since 2011, Libyan officials have not allowed Westerners to travel by car over the Egyptian-Libyan border, letting only nationals from those two nations pass. Militants control huge swaths of eastern Libya.
Despite that, the announcement by the three nations appeared to catch Libyan officials and residents by surprise and set off conjecture that the U.S. military was preparing to launch an attack in retaliation for the Sept. 11 attack. The city skies already are punctuated with the nightly sounds of drones flying overhead, and some residents said the noise has been more pronounced over the past few days.
But in a briefing with reporters Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggested there were no immediate attack plans because the United States had not yet determined who were the roughly 70 men who stormed the compound and set it ablaze.
“If we find out who the perpetrators are, we will go after them,” Panetta said. “We don’t stand by when Americans are killed.”
In all, Thursday’s announcement appeared to affect scores of people rather than hundreds, and embassies have been warning for months that eastern Libya is particularly dangerous.
On Jan. 2, the State Department issued a travel warning urging Americans not to travel to Benghazi. On Thursday, the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli said there were no “specific, imminent threats against U.S. citizens.” But the statement went on to say, “The potential for violence and kidnappings targeting Westerners in Benghazi is significant.”
Libyan officials sought to calm fears.
“The Ministry of Interior strongly denies existence of threats against the stabilities and security of the Western citizens and residents who live in Benghazi, and assure that the Benghazi security situation is stable,” according to a statement from the official Libyan news agency.
Even before Thursday’s announcement, Libya has struggled to restore its oil production to the level it was at before the 2011 revolution that led to the fall of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. In an interview earlier this week with Bloomberg, Libyan Oil Minister Abdulbari Al-Arusi said that the country’s daily output was at 1.1 million barrels a day, down from 1.5 million before Gadhafi’s fall.
There have been at least a dozen attacks on Western consulates in Benghazi since then. The Italian consulate closed in Benghazi last month after an assassination attempt against a consulate employee. Britain closed its consulate there after a June attack near its compound and has been urging its citizens to avoid the city since the fall.