U.S. Embassy in Libya evacuates personnel
By Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent
updated 8:40 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
(CNN) -- The U.S. Embassy in Libya evacuated its personnel on Saturday because of heavy militia violence raging in the capital, Tripoli, the State Department said.
About 150 personnel, including 80 U.S. Marines were evacuated from the embassy in the early hours of Saturday morning and were driven across the border into Tunisia, U.S. officials confirm to CNN.
CNN has learned the plan to evacuate the Americans was in the works for several days, but the decision to carry out the plan was made just in the last few days as the security situation around the embassy deteriorated.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the United States is grateful to Tunisia "for its cooperation and support." She said the personnel are "traveling onward" from Tunisia.
"We are committed to supporting the Libyan people during this challenging time, and are currently exploring options for a permanent return to Tripoli as soon as the security situation on the ground improves. In the interim, staff will operate from Washington and other posts in the region," Harf said in a statement.
"Securing our facilities and ensuring the safety of our personnel are top Department priorities, and we did not make this decision lightly. Security has to come first. Regrettably, we had to take this step because the location of our embassy is in very close proximity to intense fighting and ongoing violence between armed Libyan factions.
Militia fighting in the area of the embassy and airport has degraded security in Tripoli significantly.
The Libyan government was informed of the evacuation after it was carried out, according to U.S. officials.
"Robust" force" was ready to protect evacuees
The Pentagon had a "robust package of military forces" in the vicinity but out of sight, ready to move in if the convoy of evacuees had come under attack.
CNN has learned there were two F-16s on combat air patrol overhead, a drone tracking the convoy to the border and a Navy destroyer offshore in the Mediterranean.
There were also several dozen heavily armed Marines flying overhead on V-22 Osprey aircraft in an "airborne response force" that were prepared to land and rapidly evacuate the Americans during the transit to the Tunisian border if they came under attack.
The Pentagon had pressed for weeks to evacuate the embassy, especially after the Tripoli airport came under repeated militia attack, leaving Americans no way to get out via commercial air, the official said.
The decision to use vehicles to drive the Americans across the border was seen as the best low-profile approach to conducting the evacuation rather than sending U.S. military helicopters and troops into Tripoli.
Harf said the United States will work with Libya and the international community "to seek a peaceful resolution to the current conflict and to advance Libya's democratic transition."
"We reiterate that Libyans must immediately cease hostilities and begin negotiations to resolve their grievances. We join the international community in calling on all Libyans to respect the will of the people, including the authority of the recently-elected Council of Representatives, and to reject the use of violence to affect political processes. Many brave Libyans sacrificed to advance their country toward a more secure and prosperous future. We continue to stand solidly by the Libyan people as they endeavor to do so," Harf said.