The US Department of State on Friday ordered non-essential US diplomats and the families of staffers at the US embassy in Beirut to leave Lebanon immediately, due to security concerns as US President Barack Obama’s administration and the US Congress debate military strikes on neighboring Syria.
The department also authorized the voluntary departure of diplomats and families at the US consulate in Adana, Turkey, which is the closest US diplomatic post to Syria in Turkey.
In a new travel warning for Lebanon, the department said it had instructed non-essential staffers to leave Beirut and urged private US citizens to depart the country “due to threats to US mission facilities and personnel.”
“The potential in Lebanon for a spontaneous upsurge in violence remains,” it said.
“Lebanese government authorities are not able to guarantee protection for citizens or visitors to the country should violence erupt suddenly. Access to borders, airports, roads and seaports can be interrupted with little or no warning,” the statement said. “Public demonstrations occur frequently with little warning and have the potential to become violent. Family, neighborhood or sectarian disputes often escalate quickly and can lead to gunfire or other violence with little or no warning.”
US citizens currently in Lebanon “should understand that they accept risks in remaining and should carefully consider those risks,” it said, adding that those who chose to stay “should prepare to depart at short notice.”
The step had been under consideration since last week when Obama said he was contemplating military action against the Syrian government for its alleged chemical weapons attack last month that the administration said killed more than 1,400 people near Damascus.
Hezbollah, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that has sent fighters into Syria, is based in Lebanon and the department said that Hezbollah “maintains a strong presence in parts of the southern suburbs of Beirut, portions of the Bekaa Valley and areas in South Lebanon.”
“The situation remains tense, and sporadic violence involving Hezbollah or other extremist or criminal organizations remains a possibility in many areas of the country,” it said.
Shortly after the announcement, about 150 people gathered for a protest near the US embassy compound north of Beirut. Police kept the protesters confined to a square on a road leading to the heavily fortified embassy in the suburb of Awkar.
The protesters held banners that read “No to War” and “The American Embassy is an operations room for the war on Syria.” Another banner read: “Your rockets and fleets do not scare us.”
Some of the protesters had painted their hands with red, to symbolize blood.
Dozens of riot police in full gear stood on guard, but there were no reports of any clashes. In a separate advisory for Turkey, the State Department announced it would allow personnel at the Adana consulate to leave their posts and recommended that US citizens defer non-essential travel to southeastern Turkey.