WASHINGTON -- More than 100 U.S. State Department staff members including the Marine guards were evacuated safely Saturday from the U.S. Embassy in Libya by convoy to Tunisia as Air Force F-16 fighters flew cover overhead.
Embassy personnel reportedly destroyed classified documents or carried them away before joining the column of vehicles on the five-hour run to Tunisia that passed "without incident," according to Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.
The evacuation was ordered as fighting among rival militias in the Libyan capital of Tripoli came near the embassy grounds. Fighting at the airport had ruled out an air evacuation.
As the convoy proceeded, F-16s and reconnaissance drones flew over the route. Marine MV-22 Ospreys with Marine Air-Ground Task Force troops aboard also followed the route as a precaution.
At the State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement that "Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya."
Harf also called on all U.S. citizens remaining in Libya to "depart immediately." She said that the Embassy technically would remain open, but it was not immediately clear who might be present.
"We did not make this decision lightly," Harf said, but "security has to come first. Regrettably, we had to take this step because the location of our embassy is in very close proximity to intense fighting and ongoing violence between armed Libyan factions," Harf said.
In Paris Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that the evacuation was temporary and the staff would return as soon as the security situation would allow.
In his statement, Kirby said that "all embassy personnel were relocated, including the Marine security guards who were providing security at the embassy and during the movement."
"The embassy staff was driven in vehicles to Tunisia," Kirby said. "During movement, F-16’s, ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) assets and an Airborne Response Force with MV-22 Ospreys provided security." Kirby said.
The evacuation came nearly three years after the downfall of Moammar Khadafy, which was brought about with U.S. and NATO military assistance, in what then appeared to be a major achievement for the "Arab Spring" democracy movement.
A year after Khadafy’s ouster, militants attacked the U.S. Consulate and an annex in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. A special committee of the House currently is preparing for another round of hearings on the Benghazi attacks.
The evacuation marked another setback for U.S. policy in a region beset by Islamic militants in Iraq, a civil war in Syria and stalled negotiations with Iran on curbing its nuclear programs.
In a statement, Rep. Howard "Buck’ McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he was praying for the safety of all Americans in Libya.
"I wish them a safe return, and for the safety of American troops watching over them."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@monster.com