WASHINGTON -- Alarmed by developments in Libya, the United States this week moved 200 troops to a base in Sicily so that they could respond more quickly if the U.S. needs to evacuate its embassy in Tripoli, two administration officials have said.
The troop move is the latest acknowledgment from the Obama administration that three years after a NATO bombing campaign helped topple the government of Moammar Gadhafi, conditions in the oil-producing country are deteriorating and security concerns that previously were confined to Benghazi and Libya's east have spread to Tripoli, the capital, and the country's west.
Of special concern is that Islamist militias could easily close Tripoli's airport, complicating any effort to evacuate U.S. diplomats if the situation deteriorates further. Militias also are in position to seize control of Libya's other airports, including the one in Benghazi, where militants in 2012 attacked U.S. diplomatic facilities, killing four Americans including the ambassador, Christopher Stevens.
One senior diplomat in Tripoli said U.S. officials are living under severe security restrictions. "You have to have a new normal," said the diplomat, who was not authorized to talk to the press and spoke on condition of anonymity. "We're built to hunker down."
The fluidity of the security situation in Tripoli played out again Friday, as Algeria reportedly sent in members of its special forces and a military plane to evacuate its ambassador and staff after militants threatened them.
Since the attacks on the U.S. outpost in Benghazi, in 2012, there have been a number of kidnappings and assassinations of diplomats and other leaders in Tripoli, including the prime minister, Ali Zaidan, who subsequently resigned and fled the country. Key members of the government that replaced Mr. Zaidan's, including the deputy intelligence chief, Mustafa Noah, have been kidnapped as well.
But the apparent impetus for the U.S. troop movement was the release this week of Jordan's ambassador to Libya, Fawaz al-Itan, after 28 days as a hostage, possibly in exchange for Jordan's release from jail of a top Libyan Islamist. Officials fear the deal might encourage more kidnappings.
How long the U.S. troops will remain in Sicily was unknown, but the security situation in Libya is unlikely to improve anytime soon.
The central government's lack of control over its fragmented military was never more evident than on Friday, when fierce fighting gripped Benghazi after a key commander in the 2011 uprising, Gen. Khalifa Hifter, commandeered government troops and air power to attack Islamist militias. It was the worst fighting there in three years.
The clashes killed at least 24 people, according to several health officials in at least four hospitals in the city where bodies arrived. A total of 124 were wounded, officials said.
Residents of Benghazi said that while they were uncertain they could trust Gen. Hifter, they welcomed anyone waging a serious campaign against the militias that control the city. Gen. Hifter's forces captured the western entrance to the city from Ansar al-Shariah, the largest militant group in Libya. Ansar al-Shariah members are believed to have been responsible for the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed Stevens.
Associated Press contributed.