The Government today urged British nationals to leave Libya’s second city of Benghazi in response to a “specific threat to Westerners” from terror groups operating in North Africa.
Defence sources confirmed the warning is linked to the activities of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, an offshoot of which was responsible for last week’s hostage crisis at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria in which 37 Westerners were killed, along with 29 Islamist militants.
The Foreign Office refused to go into details but the threat could be linked to one of Aqim’s Libyan splinter groups, Ansar Al-Sharia, whose members were chased out of Benghazi by protesters after the killing of US ambassador Chris Stevens on 11 September last year.
Dutch and German citizens have also been advised to join the exodus, while Egypt has restricted movement across its border with Libya due to security concerns.
Intelligence reports from Egypt as well as intercepted communications from Burkina Faso and Algeria led to the warning being issued. Western interests, rather than explicitly British ones, were said to be the terrorists’ intended target.
Governments across North and West Africa have been on heightened alert following last week’s hostage crisis in the Sahara.
“We are now aware of a specific and imminent threat to Westerners in Benghazi,” the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in its statement, “and urge any British nationals who remain there against our advice to leave immediately.”
Tonight Libyan authorities said the evacuation order was “not rational” and demanded an explanation from London.
The threat is not thought to involved a “massive attack” of the type that was launched on In Amenas, but rather a targeted assassination or kidnappings. The warning came a day after outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a forceful defence in the Senate over her handling of the murder of Mr Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi last September.
The city is the business hub of eastern Libya and was the birthplace of the uprising that eventually toppled Col. Gaddafi. However, since the dictator’s death it has also been used as a base by several Jihadist groups including Ansar Al-Sharia, a group seen as the new face of al-Qa’ida in the wake of the Arab Spring. It is believed that individuals from Ansar Al-Sharia remain in the city while the group in the main has withdrawn.
Violence in Benghazi has targeted both foreigners as well as Libyan officials in recent months, with assassinations, bombings and other attacks. As well as the 11 September assault on the US consulate, an Italian diplomat’s car was fired on by militants earlier this month. Although the Italian consul was not injured, Rome has suspended consular activities in the city and evacuated staff. Britain’s Ambassador to Libya, Dominic Asquith, narrowly escaped injury when the convoy he was travelling in Benghazi last June was hit by rocket-propelled grenades. Two of his bodyguards were hurt when his convoy was attacked just 300 yards from his office. There have been concerns since the attack that the consulate office may have been infiltrated.
This week Kim Darroch, David Cameron’s national security adviser, held talks in Tripoli with Libya’s Prime Minister, Ali Zidan, in which the security situation in Libya was top of the agenda. French citizens, including doctors working at Benghazi hospitals, have left the city and the French cultural centre has been closed over concerns of retaliatory attacks in the wake of France’s military intervention in Mali. Few Britons and a handful of German and Dutch citizens remain in Benghazi now, many of them acting as security contractors or aid workers.
Attempts to step up security in the face of increased terror threats have been complicated by recent splits within the mosaic of groups supporting Aqim. In Mali, Ansar Dine – one of the three largest groups controlling the Islamist-occupied north of the country – split today and an offshoot calling itseld the Islamic Movement for Azawad said it was seeking talks with the government and “rejected all forms of extremism and terrorism.”
Drones inquiry launched by UN
The United Nations has launched an inquiry into the impact and legality of drone strikes, which have killed hundreds of civilians in Pakistan and elsewhere in the past ten years.
British drone strikes in Afghanistan, US strikes in Pakistan and Israeli drone attacks in the Palestinian Territories will all be investigated.
The investigation will be led by a British lawyer, Ben Emmerson QC, who yesterday called for “accountability and reparation where things have gone badly wrong”.
Strikes by unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), or drones, have become a widely used strategy for nations fighting armed militia, but have been criticising for causing hundreds of civilians casualties.