Libya plans diplomatic security force after attacks

TRIPOLI Sun Jan 13, 2013 2:56pm EST

A security officer points to gun shots on the window of the Italian consul's car after it was shot by unknown assailants in Benghazi January 12, 2013. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

A security officer points to gun shots on the window of the Italian consul's car after it was shot by unknown assailants in Benghazi January 12, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya plans to create a special force to protect diplomats, government sources said, after a gun attack on an Italian consul exposed the precarious security situation in the North African state.

Unidentified gunmen in Benghazi opened fire on Guido De Sanctis's armored car on Saturday. The diplomat was unhurt but the attack was a reminder of the September 11 attack on the U.S. mission there that killed the ambassador and three other Americans.

"We are discussing putting in place a force that would look after diplomats. There are also plans to protect foreigners working for foreign companies," a defense ministry source said, declining to be named as the proposal was still being discussed.

"The idea is it would be mixed between police and army but would likely come under the command of the defense ministry."

The source said the members were likely to be trained abroad but did not give an estimate of how many there would be.

Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi spoke by telephone to his Libyan counterpart to reaffirm Italy's resolve to help Libya reinforce its security.

Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi said Saturday's attack was "an attempt to destabilize the institutions of the new Libya."

"Italy expresses its strongest condemnation and reaffirms its total support of the democratic path and the reforms that the Tripoli authorities have started," he said in a statement.

An Italian foreign ministry spokesman said security around officials in Benghazi was already high before Saturday's attack, which will strengthen views that the city is seen as too dangerous a place for foreign diplomats and workers.

There was no immediate indication who might have been behind the attack.

DISARRAY

More than a year after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, security in Libya remains in disarray.

To keep a degree of order, the government relies on numerous militias made up of thousands of Libyans who took up arms against Gaddafi. The groups provide what passes for official security but also what poses the main threat to it.

The government has taken a twin-track approach, saying it will shut down rogue groups but licensing many of the most powerful armed brigades.

Almost 6,000 former rebel fighters have begun training to be policemen under a drive to disarm militias, the new interior minister said in an interview last week.

Confirming the government plan for a diplomatic security unit, a foreign ministry source said diplomats currently had to advise Libyan authorities if they planned to travel more than 80 kms (50 miles) from their base.

"Even when the force is established, diplomats need to take care of themselves. This is not Switzerland," the source said.

American officials say militants with ties to al Qaeda affiliates were most likely involved in the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission and a CIA annex.

However four months on, no arrests have been made, with some saying it is too difficult for the weak armed forces to move against these groups and there is no real desire to dig too deep for fear of reprisals.

In a scathing assessment released last month, an official U.S. inquiry determined security at the Benghazi mission was inadequate to deal with the attack and there was little evidence militia guards alerted Americans to the assault or swiftly summoned reinforcements once it was under way.

The eastern city of Benghazi was where the anti-Gaddafi uprising broke out nearly two years ago but it is now a hot spot for violence, riven with armed factions.

In November, the city's police chief was shot dead. And last June, a convoy carrying the British ambassador was attacked with a rocket-propelled grenade that injured two of his bodyguards.

The offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the city were also attacked last year, as was a convoy carrying the United Nations' former special envoy to Libya.

(Additional reporting by Catherine Hornby in Rome; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)