WASHINGTON – Four U.S. military members are part of a State Department team that is restoring and securing the U.S. Embassy in the Libyan capital, in part out of concern that it may have been booby-trapped during the fighting between rebel and pro-government forces, officials said Monday.
The arrival of the U.S. team in Tripoli on Saturday marks only the second time since the U.S. became involved there that it has acknowledged having any military personnel on the ground. The first time was in March when Marines rescued an Air Force pilot who had ejected over eastern Libya.
Navy Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the four military members of the State Department group include two who specialize in disposing of explosives. He says the four are not there in any offensive or defensive military capacity, but only to help the State Department.
Kirby described the embassy as "pretty well trashed."
In explaining the rationale for putting military personnel on the State Department team, department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland cited the explosives threat.
"Folks had to go in and check and make sure that there weren't any booby traps in our old building," she told reporters.
President Barack Obama has said since the start of U.S. involvement in Libya that he would not commit ground forces. U.S. pilots have flown thousands of missions over Libya since March, but the only known troop presence on the ground was the brief rescue mission by Marines. Some have suggested a need to get more directly involved on the ground in order to secure anti-aircraft weapons and chemical weapons stockpiles.
"When the president made his commitment, 'no boots on the ground,' that obviously had to do with entering into the fray between the Gadhafi forces and the Libyan freedom fighters," Nuland said. "And that's not what these guys are engaged in," referring to the four troops now in Tripoli
Kirby said the military personnel, in addition to dealing with the explosive threat, are helping the State Department determine what it will take to ensure security at the facility, which was significantly vandalized during the conflict. "They are assisting in an assessment of the facility," Kirby said. "They are equipped and prepared to provide for their own defense. This is not an offensive or even a defensive mission."
Nuland said the head of the State Department team, Joan Polaschik, met with the National Transitional Council's national security adviser and deputy foreign minister to discuss security requirements of the U.S. diplomatic mission as well as political developments. She said the U.S. team found that water, electricity and other basic services are returning to normal in Tripoli.
"But we still have quite a bit of work to do to security appropriate facilities for our folks," she said.
The State Department also issued a statement Monday expressing concerns about black African migrants and refugees in Libya being arbitrarily detained and abused because of their perceived links to the Gadhafi regime.
"Nobody should be detained or harassed due to the color of their skin or their nationality, and measures must be taken to protect individuals from acts of violence," the statement said.
The U.S. is offering to help foreigners leave Libya for their own safety.
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.