British Airways aircraft taxi after snowfall at Heathrow
airport in London. The carrier said it would continue
operating flights from London to the Libyan capital
Tripoli, in the wake of a call for Britons to leave
Benghazi. REUTERS/Neil Hall
European countries have urged their nationals to leave
the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, after Britain cited a
"specific and imminent" threat to Westerners days after a
deadly attack by Islamist militants in neighbouring Algeria.
Officials declined to give details, but Britain has warned of
a growing militant threat in North Africa, which Prime
Minister David Cameron has called a "magnet for jihadists".
The call to leave Libya's second largest city irked Libyans
keen to win foreign investment to rebuild a fractured
infrastructure and boost the oil industry after the
revolution which toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
"We are now aware of a specific and imminent threat to
Westerners in Benghazi, and urge any British nationals who
remain there against our advice to leave immediately," the
Foreign Office said in a statement.
Similar warnings came from Germany and the Netherlands.
They followed the deaths of at least 38 hostages in an attack
on Algeria's In Amenas gas complex near the Libyan border,
and the start of French military operations in Mali.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle described the
situation in Benghazi - cradle of the uprising against
Gaddafi - as "serious and delicate".
"The warning was made because of a series of bits of
information. We have our reasons, but I would not like to
speak of details. Security is the most important thing," he
told reporters during a visit to Lisbon.
Few Westerners are believed to be in Benghazi, which has
experienced a wave of violence against diplomats as well as
military and police officers, including an attack in
September that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other
A British embassy spokeswoman in Tripoli said the number of
Britons in Benghazi was small, without specifying further.
Last week Italy suspended activity at its Benghazi consulate
and withdrew staff after a gun attack on its consul.
"The situation in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) is not just
worrying, it is incredibly worrying," a Western diplomat
said. "But in light of the events recently, this could be a
With the country awash with weapons and its shaky nascent
institutions struggling to rein in armed groups, Libyans are
keen to ensure western fears do not drag down its economy.
The bulk of Libya's oil wealth, around 80 percent, is located
in the east of the country but the oil installations are far
from Benghazi and oil is not piped through there.
"The British ambassador told me about this decision yesterday
and I told him to give me reasons for this fear, and he said
we have threats and fears for our people there. I asked him
for something written, and he still hasn't provided it,"
Libyan deputy interior minister Omar al-Khadrawi told
"They have the right to be fearful for their people and it is
our duty to protect them and our citizens. The threats they
are speaking of, we are taking seriously. The British
decision should have been taken together with the Libyan
Khadrawi said there were no more than 20 British nationals in
Benghazi and most worked at international schools.
Cameron's spokesman batted away accusations that Britain's
warnings undermined confidence in Libya after Gaddafi and
said that "progress can, is being made in Libya".
A LOT OF THREATS
The city has been the scene of power struggles between
various armed Islamist factions. U.S. intelligence officials
say Islamist militants with ties to al Qaeda affiliates were
most likely involved in the deadly Sept. 11 assault on the
U.S. mission in the city, Libya's second biggest.
Libya, whose vast desert borders are hard to police, fears
that France's military operation in Mali could fan Islamist
flames at home, and Libya's foreign minister called for
United Nations peacekeepers to be deployed in Mali to prevent
uprooted fighters destabilising countries nearby.
Security experts said the European warnings were probably in
response to threats from groups angered by the French
operation in Mali and inspired by the attack at In Amenas.
One European national security official said "a lot of folks"
were doing "a lot of threatening".
George Joffe, Middle East expert at Cambridge University,
said a direct link between Islamist groups in Libya and those
behind the Algeria attack was unlikely.
"I'm quite certain these are groups working in sympathy with
other groups elsewhere (but), I don't think for one minute
that there are organisational or institutional links between
groups in Mali or in Algeria and those in Libya," Joffe said.
"The threats almost certainly come from an extremist group
... basically based in Benghazi, but we have no idea of the
seriousness of the threat, the ability of the group to carry
out the threat or the intention of the group in making it."
Saad al-Saitim, deputy head of the Benghazi Local Council,
said the warnings were a setback, inciting "more fear at a
time when people need to stand with us".
"Following the Mali events, foreigners are worried and are
taking precautionary steps. Benghazi hardly has any
foreigners at the moment and few foreign consulates," he
British Airways said it would continue operating its
thrice-weekly flights from London to the Libyan capital
Tripoli. The next one is scheduled for Sunday.
Air Malta said it had cancelled Thursday's flights to
Benghazi following Britain's warning.