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US moves armed forces closer to Libya as unrest grows

Sapa-AP, Reuters

The US has sent more marines and aircraft to Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily after gunmen stormed Libya's Parliament over the weekend.

The United States has increased the number of marines and aircraft stationed in Sicily. (AFP)

The United States has increased the number of marines and aircraft stationed in Sicily who could be called on to evacuate Americans from the US embassy in Tripoli as unrest in Libya grows, two US officials said on Monday.

They were sending about 60 more marines and another four Osprey aircraft, whose tiltrotor engines allow them to take off and land like helicopters, to Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily from a military base in Spain.

This has brought the number of marines stationed in Sicily as a precaution to around 250, the two officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Their location in Italy moves them closer to Libya, speeding up response times.

One US official added that the armed forces at Sigonella were on heightened alert.

Heavily armed gunmen stormed Libya’s Parliament on Sunday and gunfire erupted across Tripoli, where rival militias clashed in some of the worst violence in the city since the end of the 2011 war against Muammar Gaddafi.

Saudi Arabia closed its embassy and consulate in the Libyan capital and withdrew its entire diplomatic staff on Monday because of security concerns.

Underscoring the turmoil, the commander of the Libyan army special forces, Wanis Bukhamada, said on Monday that he had allied with renegade general Khalifa Haftar in his campaign against militant Islamists. The Tripoli government has denounced Haftar as attempting to stage a coup.

Embassy security
The marines in Sigonella are part of a crisis response unit focused on embassy security. The unit was created after the attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11 2012 that killed US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

The Pentagon has in recent months made similar, temporary moves of marines from the special purpose marine air-ground task force-crisis response, a rotating force of marines and sailors positioned at Morón Air Base in Spain.

About 200 marines from the task force flew to the Sigonella station in Sicily in October last year for several weeks after US special operations forces captured a senior al-Qaeda figure in Libya, triggering unrest. 

Meanwhile, an official close to Algeria’s state-owned oil firm Sonatrach said authorities had decided to evacuate the company’s employees from Libya because of the deteriorating security situation.

The decision follows the evacuation of Algerian diplomats from Libya on Friday in response to what the foreign ministry said was a “clear and present” threat. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement was yet to be made, said on Tuesday that it was feared that with Algerian diplomats gone, terrorists would target oil workers. 

Sonatrach has been working on oil fields in the Ghadames basin in southern Libya, near the Algerian border. 

Renegade general Haftar has taken up arms against the Islamists dominating Libya’s fractured government, sparking fighting in major cities. Libya is home to al-Qaeda-linked groups battling the Algerian government.– Sapa-AP, Reuters

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