Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia have all urged their citizens to leave the Libyan city of Benghazi due to a “specific, imminent threat to Westerners,” linked to French action in Mali.
Britain’s warning on Thursday sparked an angry response from Libya’s government, which said there was “no new intelligence” to justify such concerns in the eastern city.
However, Australia’s foreign affairs department followed suit yesterday, saying: “We are aware of a specific, imminent threat to Westerners in Benghazi. All Australians in Benghazi should leave immediately.”
“There is a risk of retaliatory attacks against Western targets in Libya following the French intervention in the conflict in Mali in January 2013,” it said.
Benghazi was the cradle of the uprising that ousted Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, and also the city where a US ambassador was killed in an attack in September last year.
The initial alert from London came hours after British Prime Minister David Cameron warned that last week’s deadly attack on a gas complex in Algeria was only one part of what would be a “long struggle against murderous terrorists” around the world.
“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 in London said in a statement.
Later on Thursday, both Germany and the Netherlands also warned their citizens to leave.
Libyan Deputy Minister of the Interior Abdullah Massoud expressed “astonishment” at the warnings and said Tripoli would be demanding an explanation.
“We acknowledge that there are security problems in Benghazi and that there have been for several months, but there is no new intelligence that could justify this reaction from London,” Massoud said.
“On the contrary. We are now in the process of establishing our authority in the east and in all of Libya, and the security forces are organizing themselves little by little and are more and more visible on the ground,” he said.
Since its pivotal role as the springboard for the uprising, Benghazi has emerged as a hub for jihadist groups.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned of the challenge posed by rising militancy following the Arab Spring, in testimony to Congress about September’s bloody attack on the US mission in Benghazi.
US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed when dozens of heavily armed al-Qaeda-linked militants overran the compound and a nearby CIA-run annex.
Britain closed its mission in Benghazi around the same time and updated its official advice to warn against traveling there and indeed to most of Libya. The number of Britons currently in Benghazi is only thought to be in the dozens.
Earlier this month the Italian consul in Benghazi was shot at in his car, although he escaped unhurt.
Last week’s attack on the BP-run In Amenas gas plant in Algeria, in which at least 37 foreign hostages and one Algerian hostage were killed, has sparked fresh concerns about rising Islamist extremism across north Africa.