* U.S. consulate overrun and torched in long night of mayhem
* Libyans point to units of heavily armed Islamist group
* A series of unfortunate choices amid confusion and fear
By Hadeel Al Shalchi
BENGHAZI, Libya, Sept 13 Diplomats had long been
on their guard in Benghazi, a city that was the cradle of
Libya's Western-backed revolution but also home to Islamists who
have attacked foreign envoys.
Yet a long night of mayhem in which the U.S. consulate was
overrun and torched, the ambassador lost and dying alone in the
smoke while rescuers ran into a deadly ambush as they sought to
save survivors, seemed to overwhelm U.S. security procedures.
Accounts from Libyan and U.S. officials, and from locals who
watched what began as a protest on Tuesday against a crudely
made American film that insults the Prophet Mohammad spiral into
violence and a military-style assault on U.S. troops, point to a
series of unfortunate choices amid the confusion and fear.
The actions of Libyan former rebel fighters assigned to help
guard the lightly fortified compound may also face scrutiny.
Libyan officers suggested that sympathy for the popular anger at
the slight to their religion, as well as simple fear under heavy
fire, meant the guards may have done little to defend the walls.
Much remains unknown, notably the extent to which armed
militants may have prepared in advance for an attack as opposed
to merely profiting from the opportunity of an angry crowd
spinning out of control in a country where guns are everywhere.
However, this much is clear: a crowd gathered at dusk, about
7 p.m. (1700 GMT), chanting slogans against the film and angry
at Washington's failure to act against its promoters. At some
point, shooting began, with some in the crowd thinking they were
under fire from the consulate. Around 10 p.m., rioters surged
into the compound, bullets and grenades flew, and fires started.
Among the assailants, Libyans identified units of a heavily
armed local Islamist group, Ansar al-Sharia, which sympathises
with al Qaeda and derides Libya's U.S.-backed bid for democracy.
Eventually, some three dozen Americans drove off to a safe
house, knowing one diplomat was dead and Ambassador Christopher
Stevens missing. When an eight-man rescue team flew in from
Tripoli, they and their Libyan escorts were pinned down with the
survivors by another attack in which two more Americans died.
Meanwhile, Stevens, 52, had been found by local people and
taken, unrecognised, to a hospital, around 1 a.m. A doctor
failed to revive him and pronounced him dead of smoke
Around dawn, at 7 a.m., the beleaguered American survivors,
with their battered military rescue party, were finally escorted
back to Benghazi airport by a convoy of Libyan militia fighters
in dozens of vehicles, to be flown to Tripoli and safety.
The fact that the attack took place on the 11th anniversary
of al Qaeda's Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, and that
the ambassador, normally based in the capital Tripoli, was
present in person, has prompted speculation that it may have be
elaborately planned in advance by the likes of Ansar al-Sharia.
Three months ago to the day, the British ambassador survived
a rocket attack as his convoy approached London's Benghazi
consulate and there has been other violence against foreigners,
mostly blamed on anti-Western Islamists, with some possible
involvement by angry loyalists of the late Muammar Gaddafi.
Diplomats say foreign staffing in Benghazi has generally
been kept low to reduce the security risks. But the city is home
to key oil installations, Libya's economic mainstay, and a local
source said Stevens had been expected at meetings with state
oil executives on Wednesday, explaining at least part of his
Some of those who took part in the initial demonstration in
Benghazi insisted it was a spontaneous, unplanned public protest
which had begun relatively peacefully. Anger over the film also
saw an unruly protest at the U.S. embassy across the Egyptian
border in Cairo on Tuesday evening, with protesters scaling the
Local journalists also saw an eclectic gathering of people
infuriated by religious sentiment but few of them bearing arms
and most not appearing affiliated with hardline Islamist groups.
"When we had heard that there was a film that was insulting
to the Prophet, we, as members of the public, and not as militia
brigades, we came to the consulate here to protest and hold a
small demonstration," said a 17-year-old student named Hamam,
who spoke to Reuters at the devastated compound on Wednesday.
By his account, while some demonstrators fired rifles in the
air - a far from uncommon sight in postwar Libya - a rumour
spread that a protester had been wounded by firing from inside
the consulate and Hamam and many others went off to retrieve
guns which, like many Libyans, they keep at home for security.
"So we started shooting at them," Hamam said. "And then some
other people also threw homemade bombs over the fences and
started fires in the buildings. There was some Libyan security
for the embassy, but when the bombs went off they ran off."
Abdel-Salam al-Bargathi, who runs the security operations of
the former rebel February 17 Brigade, which effectively forms
the police force for Benghazi while the new authorities work to
establish new institutions, said he heard explosions start
around 8:30 p.m. from his headquarters a mile (1.6 km) or so
"There was a lot of chaos and confusion when the clashes
began," he said. By 9 p.m., he was receiving calls from his
units at the scene that rocket-propelled grenades were being
fired at the consulate. A power cut had plunged the area into
"People started running into each other and nobody knew who
was who," Bargathi told Reuters, saying that around this time he
began ordering preparations to be made for an evacuation.
Tellingly, he and another senior officer, Wissam Buhmeid,
the commander of the pro-government local defence force, the
Libya's Shield Brigade, stressed that the Libyan guards on the
consulate - estimated by Bargathi at up to 40 or more - may have
felt little will to defend the compound from what they, and many
other Libyans, judged to be justified religious indignation.
"I first of all place the blame on the United States itself
for allowing such a movie to be produced. This was the product
of the anger of Muslims," Buhmeid said, noting also that the
guards had only light weapons in the face of rockets.
"I saw utter chaos. The power went out and it was completely
dark," he said. "There were definitely people from the security
forces who let the attack happen because they were themselves
offended by the film; they would absolutely put their loyalty to
the Prophet over the consulate. The deaths and injuries and
attacks are all nothing compared to insulting the Prophet."
Bargathi, of the police command, said the killings had taken
the protest too far, but said: "What we saw was a very natural
reaction to the insult to the Prophet. We condemn the deaths but
the insult to the Prophet made people very angry."
Ali Fetori, 59, an accountant who lives near the embassy,
said: "The security people ... just all ran away and the people
in charge were the young men with guns and bombs."
U.S. officials said the consulate's perimeter was breached
15 minutes after the crowd tried to storm in at around 10 p.m.
The main villa was set on fire, with three Americans inside -
the ambassador, IT specialist Sean Smith and a security officer.
"They became separated from each other due to the heavy dark
smoke while they were trying to evacuate the burning building,"
one senior official said. The security officer made it outside.
"They found Sean. He was already dead. And they pulled him
from the building. They were unable, however, to locate Chris,
before they were driven from the building, due to the heavy fire
and smoke and the continuing small arms fire."
Ali Khamis, a gardener, said he was in his room at the
consulate when the attack happened. "They came into the
compound, through all the gates. They were shouting 'Allahu
akbar' and they were shooting in the air when they came in," he
Hamam, the young protester, said he had seen an American
"totally covered in soot and black" lying apparently dead in the
compound. Some people he said were chanting, "Allahu akbar (God
is great), We are victorious over the infidels."
Photographs published on the Internet appeared to show
Stevens unconscious and begrimed, being held by local men.
Ziad Abu Zaid, who was the duty doctor in the emergency room
at Benghazi Medical Centre, said local civilians had brought in
a man they said was American around 1 a.m. "He came in in a
state of cardiac arrest," Abu Zaid said. "I performed CPR for 45
minutes, but he died of asphyxiation due to smoke inhalation."
Only when someone told him the patient had come from the
consulate did he make out Stevens's locally well-known features
beneath the smoke and grime that obscured his face, he said.
SAFE HOUSE SIEGE
Libyan officials said the surviving Americans withdrew to a
safe house. It would be normal security procedure in countries
like Libya for international personnel to have a secure, secret
location prepared for just such an eventuality.
Captain Fathi al-Obeidi, commander of a special operations
force for the February 17 Brigade, told Reuters that he took a
call about 1:30 a.m. from Tripoli telling him that a helicopter
was on its way from the capital's Mitiga airport with a rescue
squad of eight U.S. troops - he described them as marines.
After he met them at Benghazi airport with a convoy of 10
vehicles, mostly pickup trucks, one mounted with an
anti-aircraft cannon, the U.S. force directed Obeidi and his men
to the GPS coordinates of a farmhouse to find the survivors
Here, two more things went wrong. First, Obeidi found four
times as many Americans at the single-storey, fortified house as
he had been told expect - 37, not just 10. So he did not have
enough transport. Then, the villa came under massive attack.
This time, there was little doubt in the minds of Libyans
who experienced it that this was a well-organised assault by men
who had mastered the complexities of military mortar fire.
"This attack was planned," Obeid said. "The accuracy with
which the mortars hit us was too good for any ordinary
While some Libyan officials suggested that former soldiers
from Gaddafi's army may have been involved in Benghazi, some of
the Islamist fighters also have substantial military experience
from years spent fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Though Libya's deputy interior minister described the
locating of the safe house as a "critical security breach," the
attack may not have been planned for long in advance. The
assailants would have had some hours to follow the fleeing
Americans and set up an ambush after the consulate attack.
"It began to rain down on us," Obeidi said just as the
rescue force was preparing to leave. "About six mortars fell
directly on the path to the villa," he said. One American fell
wounded by him. A mortar struck the building itself, throwing
from the roof another American posted there onto the men below.
"I was being bombarded by calls from all over the country by
Libyan government officials who wanted me to hurry and get them
out," he said. "But ... I needed more men and more cars."
Two Americans, including one of the eight security personnel
sent from Tripoli, were killed and several wounded.
Finally, dozens more vehicles from the Libyan security
forces arrived, the attackers melted away and, as the sun came
up over the desert, they reached Benghazi airport, from where
the surviving Americans and the bodies were flown out.