Calls from several Western governments urging their citizens to evacuate Benghazi have surprised diplomats and Libyan officials who say there is no need for alarm despite chronic unrest in the eastern city.
“Everyone is asking… why this alarm all at once,” said Jean Dufriche, the French honorary consul in Benghazi, adding that he had to heed his government’s instructions and leave the city.
Speaking to AFP by telephone, Dufriche said rumours by radical Islamists aimed at “forcing foreigners to leave Benghazi” spread like quick fire, causing a chain reaction in Western capitals where governments told their nationals to evacuate.
“If the goal of Islamists was to empty Benghazi of foreign nationals, then they won,” he added.
On Friday, France took Britain’s lead in pulling some 40 nationals out of Benghazi because of a terrorist threat believed to be linked to France’s military intervention in Mali.
Germany, the Netherlands and Australia have also urged their citizens to leave Benghazi, cradle of the uprising that toppled dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011 but also the city where a US ambassador was killed in an attack in September.
US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed when dozens of heavily armed Al Qaeda-linked militants overran the American consulate and a nearby CIA-run annex.
Britain closed its mission in Benghazi at around the same time and there were thought to be only a handful of Britons left in the city when the first warning was issued on Thursday.
“We are now aware of a specific and imminent threat to Westerners in Benghazi, and urge any British nationals who remain there against our advice to leave immediately,” the Foreign Office in London said in a statement.
Britain’s warning sparked an angry response from Libya’s government, which said there was “no new intelligence” to justify such concerns in the city.
Libya said it has yet to be informed by any Western country of their intention to evacuate citizens and would demand an explanation.
“There has been no formal notice to us from any other country of its intention to evacuate its citizens from the city of Benghazi,” an interior ministry source was quoted as saying by LANA news agency.
Deputy Interior Minister Abdullah Massud expressed “astonishment” at the warnings and criticised London for “causing all the commotion and excitement.”
Dufriche, a doctor who has been heading a department at the Benghazi medical centre for several years, said the decisions to pull out Western nationals was “hasty” because so far there were no “alarming signals” to justify it.
Libya’s prime minister called the Western nations reaction an “exaggeration.”
“I think that there was exaggeration on behalf of some countries, who took some preventive measures and we can understand that,” Ali Zeidan told a panel at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.
“But the reality is that these people of foreign nationality live very peacefully in Libya and there are security measures to protect them,” he said.
On Friday it was business as usual at Benghazi airport and hotels in the city, including the flagship Tibesti which was running at full occupancy, an AFP correspondent said.
But the city’s International School and another European establishments have been closed since Wednesday and four Western teachers at the European school have left the city, an official said.
A diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were only a few dozen Westerners in Benghazi, stressing however that those who left had done so well before Britain’s warning on Thursday.
Many foreigners had left in the wake of the September attack on the US consulate, he said, adding that diplomatic missions were under-protected.
Some Libyan analysts suggested that the evacuations were ordered ahead of a possible “American military intervention against radical groups omnipresent in eastern Libya,” namely in the jihadist stronghold of Derna.
Since its pivotal role as the springboard for the uprising, Benghazi has emerged as a hub for jihadist groups.
The deputy interior minister acknowledged “security problems in Benghazi” but said there was no new intelligence to justify the London warning.