LONDON (AP) — Britain, Germany, Canada and the Netherlands urged their citizens to immediately leave the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Thursday, warning of an imminent threat against Westerners days after a deadly hostage crisis in neighboring Algeria.
European officials told The Associated Press that schools were among the potential targets.
The warnings came a day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testified to Congress about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. They also came as French troops battled al-Qaida-linked militants in the West African nation of Mali, and followed the deaths of at least 37 foreign hostages seized by Islamist extremists in Algeria.
It was unclear if those two events were linked to the latest concerns about Libya.
The foreign ministries of the three European countries issued statements describing the threat as specific and imminent but none would elaborate.
The U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya's capital far to the west of Benghazi, said there was "no specific information pointing to specific, imminent threats against U.S. citizens."
With a population of 1 million, Benghazi is Libya's second-largest city and where the Libyan uprising against longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi began in February 2011. Gadhafi was eventually toppled and killed after NATO backed the rebel movement, and the Arab country has since struggled with increasing insecurity.
Al-Qaida-linked militants operate in Libya alongside other Islamist groups, and the country is awash in weapons looted from Gadhafi's many military depots.
Schools, businesses and offices of non-governmental organizations were among the possible targets, according to two European officials familiar with the threats. They spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be quoted by name in the media. They refused to give any other details.
Violence in Benghazi has targeted both foreigners as well as Libyan officials in recent months, with assassinations, bombings and other attacks.
It was not immediately clear how many people were affected by the European warnings. Britain's Foreign Office said "dozens" of its citizens were in the city, while Dutch spokesman Thijs van Son said four Dutch citizens were registered there, and possibly two more were in the city. A German Foreign Ministry official, who requested anonymity because government policy did not allow him to be quoted by name, said "very few" Germans were in Benghazi. A Canadian Foreign Affairs official said an email was sent to Canadians there advising them to leave.
Several countries have for months advised against all travel to the city, especially after the U.S. mission was attacked. Residents say many foreigners had already left in recent weeks.
Air Malta canceled Thursday's flights between the Mediterranean island and Benghazi following the British advice, but said flights to Tripoli were not affected. The airline said its next flight to Benghazi was scheduled for Tuesday, adding that it will keep reviewing the situation.
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