British envoy's convoy ambushed in Libya, two wounded

BENGHAZI, Libya Mon Jun 11, 2012 1:55pm EDT

1 of 3. Workers bring a damaged windscreen into the British consulate office after an attack on a British diplomatic convoy, in Benghazi June 11, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori

BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - A convoy carrying Britain's ambassador to Libya was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade on Monday, injuring two of his bodyguards in the most serious of a spate of assaults on foreign targets.

The attackers ambushed the ambassador's convoy meters (yards) from the consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi, firing the weapon at the front of one of the vehicles and blowing out the windscreen, local security officials said.

It was the fourth attack in three months on a foreign mission in the city, the birth-place of the revolt which last year overthrew Muammar Gaddafi. Some analysts say the violence is the work of Islamist militants exploiting the security vacuum left after Gaddafi's fall.

"A convoy carrying the British ambassador to Libya was involved in a serious incident," said a spokeswoman for the British embassy in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

"Two close protection officers were injured in the attack but all other staff are safe and uninjured ... We are working with the Libyan authorities to establish who was responsible for the attack."

A Reuters reporter at the scene of the attack, in Benghazi's al-Rabha neighborhood, said police had cordoned off the area with waist-high concrete blocks. A damaged but still intact car windscreen could be seen lying on the ground, along with fragments of glass.

Accounts from local security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the ambassador and his convoy had visited a nearby restaurant for lunch and were returning to the consulate when the attackers struck.

A source from the government's high security committee said the rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the front of the vehicle. It was not immediately clear if the ambassador, Dominic Asquith, was in the car which was hit.

Another Libyan security official described one occupant of the convoy as being injured in the shoulder. "There was a lot of blood in the car that took him to hospital," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

However, the high security committee source said: "The wounds are minor, it's not serious."

The fact that the casualties were not worse suggested that the British diplomats were using armored vehicles, common practice for Western missions in Libya.

VIOLENCE HOT SPOT

Benghazi was where the uprising broke out last year which later ended Gaddafi's 42-year rule, but it is now a hot spot for violence, with arms readily available and state security forces struggling to assert their authority.

Monday's attack happened five days after an explosive device was dropped from a passing car outside the offices of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. The blast that followed slightly damaged the gate in front of the building.

On May 22, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the city, blasting a small hole in the building but causing no casualties.

A month earlier in Benghazi, a bomb was thrown at a convoy carrying Ian Martin, the head of the United Nations mission in Libya. No one was hurt.

Security experts say the area around the city is host to a number of Islamist militant groups who oppose any Western presence in Muslim countries.

Under Gaddafi, eastern Libya was home to an Islamist insurgency which tried to end his rule in the 1990s and later established loose ties with al Qaeda. Most of that generation of Libyan insurgents though, has since renounced violence.

The British ambassador has experience of working in a hostile environment. He served in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, after the 2003 U.S. invasion unleashed an insurgency there.

The attacks on their diplomatic missions will be jarring for London and Washington because they have been widely feted in Libya for leading, along with France, the air assault that helped force out Gaddafi last year.

The worst case scenario for Western governments is that the spate of attacks could be the start of an Iraq-style insurgency by Islamist militants. That could have an impact on oil exports because the energy sector depends on foreign workers.

However, security analysts say an insurgency is unlikely to gain the kind of momentum it did in Iraq, mainly because Western states have no military presence on the ground in Libya.

(Additional reporting by Ali Shuaib and Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Tripoli and Stephen Addison in London; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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