(Recasts with Libyan comments, details, changes dateline)
By Ayman al-Sahli and Lesley Wroughton
SABRATHA Libya/WASHINGTON Dec 28 Four American
military personnel were briefly detained in western Libya on
Friday after part of their convoy failed to stop at a checkpoint
and was found to be carrying weapons, Libyan officials said.
The Americans were released several hours later and brought
to the capital Tripoli, U.S. and Libyan officials said on
A U.S. defense official said the four Americans appeared to
have been checking potential evacuation routes for diplomats at
the U.S. embassy in Tripoli.
U.S. and other Western embassies have beefed up security at
their missions in Libya, which is still in turmoil two and a
half years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
The military personnel were near Sabratha, a town located 70
km (45 miles) west of Tripoli, "as part of security preparedness
efforts when they were taken into custody," State Department
spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
Libyan security forces stopped a three-car convoy belonging
to the U.S. embassy in al-Ajailat west of Tripoli late on
Friday, police said. One vehicle had no number plates.
"When the (first) car was stopped the two others escaped,"
Abdel-Fatah Salah, head of a regional police unit, told Reuters
One of the fleeing cars later caused a traffic accident in
nearby Sabratha. "When police arrived they found two armed
diplomats," he said. The third car disappeared into the night.
The white four-wheel jeep stopped after the accident then
suddenly caught fire which authorities could not explain, said
al-Taher al-Gharbali, an army colonel in the local military
A Reuters photographer who arrived later at the scene saw a
Once their identity had been established by the U.S. embassy
the Americans were driven to Tripoli, officials said.
Passport pictures said to belong to the four were posted on
Twitter. Neither the identity of the Americans nor the
authenticity of those photos could be confirmed. A Libyan
security source said one of the Americans was of Libyan origin
and another carried a second passport.
Psaki said the United States, which backed the 2011 uprising
against Muammar Gaddafi, valued its relationship with "the new
The North African country is still in turmoil, with
widespread insecurity, rival militias and a burgeoning autonomy
movement in the country's east.
The detention of the Americans takes on greater significance
because of the militant attack in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, in
which U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans
The attacks touched off a political storm in Washington,
with Republicans accusing Obama's administration of telling
shifting stories about who was behind the attacks.
In October, U.S. forces seized Nazih al-Ragye, better known
by the cover name Abu Anas al-Liby, in Tripoli in connection
with the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton, Missy Ryan, Ghaith Shennib, Ulf
Laessing and Ayman al-Sahli; Writing by Ulf Laessing and Lesely
Wroughton; Editing by Rosalind Russell and Erica Billingham)