By Hadeel Al Shalchi
BENGHAZI, Libya, Sept 14 Libya closed its air
space over Benghazi airport temporarily because of heavy
anti-aircraft fire by Islamists aiming at U.S. reconnaissance
drones flying over the city, days after the U.S. ambassador and
three other Americans were killed in an attack.
The closure of the airport prompted speculation that the
United States was deploying special forces in preparation for an
attack against the militants who were involved in the attack.
A Libyan official said the spy planes flew over the embassy
compound and the city, taking photos and inspecting locations
of radical militant groups who are believed to have planned and
staged the attack on the U.S. consulate on Tuesday.
Militants used anti-aircraft guns to fire at the drones,
forcing the authorities to shut the airport because they feared
for the safety of passenger planes.
"Two American drones flew over Benghazi last night with
knowledge of the Libyan authorities," Deputy Interior Minister,
Wanis al-Sharif told Reuters.
"They were visible to the eye, and came under attack by
anti-aircraft weapons used by armed militias."
"For this reason, Benghazi security decided to close down
the Benghazi airport air space. Any decision to allow an
operation of any sort on Libya soil will be made in coordination
with the congress and the new government."
Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the other Americans died
after gunmen attacked the lightly fortified U.S. consulate and a
safe house refuge in Benghazi on Tuesday night. The attack,
which U.S. officials believe could have been planned in advance,
emerged from a protest blaming America for a film they said
insulted the Prophet Mohammad.
At least four international U.N. staff running the United
Nations mission in Benghazi pulled out on Friday for security
reasons, a U.N. source said.
Several Western diplomats including the Italian consul have
also left the city, according to Libyan officials.
Ali al-Shaikhi, spokesman for the Army Chief of Staff said
Western allied forces, who helped Libyan rebels to overthrow
Muammar Gaddafi last year, continued to fly planes and drones
over Libyan air space to help Libya keep its skies safe.
He said that they had increased flights in the past few days
due to the worsening security situation.
"News came out that there were American drones in the air
and so the airport received threats from unknown groups that
they would attack any American planes circling over Benghazi.
This led the airport to take the decision to close the air space
to take precautions."
The U.S. military was moving two warships toward the coast
of the North African state, giving the Obama administration
flexibility for any future action against militant threats.
But a member of the Libyan national assembly told Reuters:
"The Americans may have spoken to our President or Chief of
Staff to coordinate an attack on the radical groups in Benghazi
but they have not approached us as a congress (assembly) yet."
"I believe that so far we as Libyans can take care of the
operation ourselves because the militias feel they are part of
Libyan society, but if we have Americans come in with an
operation then these militias will also turn on us," he said.
"For sure we will need the Americans for their logistical
and technical support and expertise, and we will ask them for it
when the time comes. But for now we need to try to do it
Airport manager Taba Mohammed said the closure ran for about
10 hours from 0030 GMT. U.S. officials said earlier a Marine
Corps anti-terrorist squad was being sent into Libya to shore up
"We have now reopened the air space. It was closed for
routine security checks," Mohammed told Reuters.
Turkish Airlines said the closure of Benghazi air space had
forced one of its flights with 121 people aboard to turn back to
Istanbul on Friday.
President Barack Obama has vowed to bring to justice those
responsible for the Benghazi attack, which U.S. officials said
may have been planned in advance. Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton said Washington had nothing to do with the video, which
she called "disgusting and reprehensible".
The United States and Libya have agreed to cooperate closely
in investigating the attack in Benghazi, a hotbed of
anti-Western Islamists, some with links to al Qaeda, since the
fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in a popular revolt last year.
Abdul Salam al-Barghathy, a senior security official in
Benghazi, told Reuters that the team investigating the U.S.
attack "had identified those responsible."
"But we are continuing our interrogations to reach
conclusive information" he added.
Libyan security officials believe that Ansar al-Sharia and
members of al Qaeda's north Africa-based affiliate, known as Al
Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, may have been involved in the
attack. They both want Islamist Sharia to be implemented in
Libya and reject Libya's U.S.-backed bid for democracy.