Almost 200 US Marines have been moved from their base in Spain to the US Naval Air Station at Sigonella in Sicily in case the American embassy in Libya comes under threat. The Pentagon said this was a precaution due to concerns about unrest in North Africa, bolstering the U.S. ability to respond to any crisis.
Officials refused to single out any country but according to a Reuters report two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said American concerns were centred squarely on Libya, where armed groups and Islamists refused to disarm after the 2011 ouster of Muammar Gaddafi.
Sigonella is a 325-mile flight from Tripoli, the Libyan capital and location of the US Embassy, and a 500-mile flight from Benghazi, site of the attack on the American diplomatic compound on Sept 11, 2012, in which U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
The contingent of nearly 200 Marines is part of a newly-created “crisis response” force set up in the wake of the attack. The team, equipped with four tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft as well as two KC-130 refuelling tankers, arrived at Sigonella on Tuesday.
“We’re doing this as a contingency because we believe that the security situation in North Africa is deteriorating to a point where there could be threats,” said Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
The State Department has requested the move amid growing concerns over violence in Libya, but there was no imminent plan to evacuate the embassy, an administration official said, according to an AFP report.
“We’re seeing a deterioration of the security situation there,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
On May 6, the governments of the US, Britain, France, Germany and Italy released a joint statement condemning “the on-going attacks by terrorist groups or organisations targeting Libya’s legitimate security forces in Benghazi.”
In March, Libyan authorities acknowledged for the first time the existence of “terrorist groups” in the country, particularly in Benghazi and in Derna, an eastern city with a history of Islamist militancy.