NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered Libya more help on Monday as it seeks to rein in militias, stressing that Washington will remain a firm partner despite this month’s deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
Clinton met Mohammed Magarief, who was elected to head Libya’s ruling national assembly in August, and received his personal apology for the September 11 attack, which killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
“What happened on 11th of September towards these U.S. citizens does not express in any way the conscience of the Libyan people, their aspirations, their hopes or their sentiments towards the American people,” Magarief told Clinton at their meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session in New York.
A senior U.S. official said Clinton reviewed U.S. assistance to Libya as it works to secure chemical weapons and other dangerous armaments and to crack down on armed militia groups that have sprung up since the ouster of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.
“The secretary offered to intensify our support and help for the Libyan government in all of those areas,” the official said following the meeting.
Clinton thanked Magarief for Libya’s efforts thus far to investigate the attack, which has raised sensitive questions among U.S. lawmakers about the security measures in place to protect the U.S. Consulate and staff.
The Obama administration has described the incident as a “terrorist attack,” and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has launched a criminal investigation.
President Barack Obama, speaking at the taping of a television appearance on Monday, said the incident was clearly more than just a protest that got out of hand.
“We’re still doing an investigation. There’s no doubt that the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action. We don’t have all the information,” Obama said.
Magarief said last week that about 50 people had been arrested in connection with the Benghazi attack, although the interior minister put the figure far lower. Magarief said some of those arrested were not Libyans and were linked to al Qaeda, which carried out the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Libya’s government has sought to impose order on armed groups that sprang up following the overthrow of Gaddafi. The country’s military said it had removed the heads of two of the most powerful militias operating in Benghazi.
Clinton, in remarks at a separate development conference on Monday, praised the people of Benghazi for taking to the streets to express their outrage over the militias.
“The people of the Arab world did not set out to trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob. There is no dignity in that,” Clinton said.
“The people of Benghazi sent this message loudly and clearly on Friday when they forcefully rejected the extremists in their midst and reclaimed the honor and dignity of a courageous city.”
The senior U.S. official said Magarief listed extremist groups and “remnants” from the Gaddafi regime as the chief threats to Libyan security and said the country needed to build better cooperation with its neighbors to secure its borders.
Despite a temporary drawdown in U.S. personnel following the Benghazi attack, the official said security cooperation and training was ongoing and would expand now that the country has an elected leadership in place.
Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Christopher Wilson and Eric Beech