WASHINGTON – The State Department on Saturday ordered the departure of all family members and non-essential U.S. government personnel from its embassies in Sudan and Tunisia and warned U.S. citizens against any travel to the two countries due to security concerns over rising anti-American violence.
"Given the security situation in Tunis and Khartoum, the State Department has ordered the departure of all family members and non-emergency personnel from both posts, and issued parallel travel warnings to American citizens," said department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
In Tunisia, the warning advised Americans that the international airport in Tunis is open and encouraged all U.S. citizens to depart on commercial flights. It said Americans who chose to remain in Tunisia should use extreme caution and avoid demonstrations. On Friday, protesters climbed the walls into the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, torching cars in the parking lot, trashing the entrance building and setting fire to a gym and a neighboring American school that is now unusable.
In Sudan, the warning said that while the Sudanese government has taken steps to limit the activities of terrorist groups, some remain and have threatened to attack Western interests. The terrorist threat level remains "critical" throughout Sudan, the department said. It noted that U.S. officials are already required to travel in armored vehicles and to get permission to travel outside Khartoum, where crowds torched part of the German Embassy and tried to storm the U.S. Embassy on Friday.
A U.S. official said on Saturday that Sudan's government is holding up the deployment of an elite Marine team that the U.S. planned to send to Khartoum to boost security at the embassy.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton worked the phones on Saturday, calling top officials from seven countries to discuss the situation following a wave of protest and violence over an anti-Muslim film that has swept across the Middle East and elsewhere in recent days. An obscure, amateurish movie called "Innocence of Muslims" that depicts Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a pedophile sparked the outrage.
On Tuesday, protesters in Egypt breached the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and then well-armed extremists attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens. Since then, protests over the video have spread to more than 20 countries in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. While most were peaceful, marches in several places exploded into violence, including Tunisia and Sudan.
Clinton on Saturday spoke to the prime minister of Libya, the president of Somalia, and the foreign ministers of Britain, Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Nuland said.
With Libyan Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur, Clinton spoke about the importance of bringing the consulate attackers to justice, Nuland said. The prime minister "expressed confidence that the attackers would be brought to justice, noting that the government was already starting to take action," she said.
With the Egyptians, Turks and Saudis, Clinton thanked them for their condemnations of the violence and spoke of the need to ensure security at diplomatic missions, Nuland said. Clinton and Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr also "agreed that while the film may be offensive and reprehensible, it cannot be used as justification for violence," Nuland said.
Clinton's calls and the State Department travel warnings came as President Barack Obama paid tribute to the Americans killed in Benghazi in his weekly radio address and denounced the anti-U.S. mob protests that have followed.