Libyans hold placards during an Aug. 29 rally in support of 'Fajr Libya' (Libya Dawn), a mainly-Islamist alliance, and to protest against the new parliament and a military intervention in the country. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP)
TRIPOLI, LIBYA — The Islamist-allied militia group in control of Libya’s capital has “secured” a U.S. Embassy residential compound there, more than a month after American personnel evacuated from the country over ongoing fighting, one of its commanders said Sunday.
The Islamist militia’s move likely will reinvigorate debate in the U.S. over its role in Libya, more than three years after supporting rebels who toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi. It also comes near the two-year anniversary of the slaying of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya’s second-largest city of Benghazi.
On July 26, U.S. diplomats evacuated the compound and the capital to neighboring Tunisia under a U.S. military escort as fighting between rival militias intensified and thousands fled. The evacuation included dozens of U.S. Marines and at least seven military aircraft. The State Department said embassy operations would be suspended until the security situation improved.
An Associated Press journalist walked through the U.S. Embassy compound Sunday after the Dawn of Libya, an umbrella group for Islamist militias, invited onlookers inside. Some windows at the compound had been broken, but it appeared most of the equipment there remained untouched. The journalist saw treadmills, food, televisions and computers still inside.
A commander for the Dawn of Libya group, Moussa Abu-Zaqia, told the AP that his forces had entered and been in control of the compound since last week, a day after it has seized control of the capital and its international airport after weeks of fighting with a rival militia. Abu-Zaqia said the rival militia was in the compound before his troops took it over.
The Dawn of Libya militia is not associated with the extremist militia Ansar al-Shariah, which Washington blames for the deadly assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, that killed Stevens and the three other Americans.
A video posted online Sunday showed unarmed men playing in a pool at the compound and jumping into it from a second-story balcony. Voices heard in the video identified it as the U.S. Embassy compound.
In a message on Twitter, U.S. Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones said the video appeared to have been shot in at the embassy’s residential annex, though she said she couldn’t “say definitively” since she wasn’t there.
“To my knowledge & per recent photos the US Embassy Tripoli chancery & compound is now being safeguarded and has not been ransacked,” she wrote on Twitter. She did not immediately respond to a request to elaborate. State Department officials in Washington also declined to immediately comment.
Typically, local forces provide security for diplomatic posts, but Libya’s government has largely relied on militias for law enforcement since Gadhafi’s ouster, as its military and police forces remain weak. In the past several weeks, the security vacuum in Tripoli deepened as militia violence worsened. It remains unclear who the U.S. left in control of guarding its facilities after its personnel evacuated.
Libya’s militias, many of which originate from rebel forces that fought Gadhafi, have become powerful players in post-war Libya. Successive governments have put militias on their payroll in return for maintaining order, but rivalries over control and resources have led to fierce fighting among them and posed a constant challenge to the central government and a hoped-for transition to democracy.
Following weeks of fighting that brought the capital to a standstill, the Dawn of Libya militia said last week it managed to seize control of Tripoli’s airport and drive a rival militia from the mountain town of Zintan out of the capital. It is now deployed around the capital and has sought to restore normalcy in the city. The group called on foreign diplomats to return now that the fighting has subsided.