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Libyan official: Militants used protest of film as cover, may have had inside help

By Hamza Hendawi and Osama Alfitory

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Sept. 13 2012 6:32 p.m. MDT

Adding to the confusion surrounding the attack is that it targeted the United States, a nation that played a key role in ridding the oil-rich, mostly desert nation of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Washington also took the lead in launching the months-long NATO air campaign that crippled the late leader's forces.

Stevens was credited by most Libyans with organizing a political front made up of opposition groups to unite the uprising against Gadhafi's 41-year rule, mediating tribal and regional disputes.

The Benghazi attack also underlined the precarious conditions in Libya nearly a year after Gadhafi's fall, with a weak central government, militias operating as local governments, a destabilizing proliferation of weapons, and militant groups — some inspired by al-Qaida — that are active under the government's radar.

Stevens and another American were killed in the consulate during the initial violence, as plainclothes Libyan security were evacuating the consulate's staff to the safe house about a mile away, el-Sharef said. The second assault took place several hours later and targeted the safe house — a villa inside the grounds of the city's equestrian club — killing two Americans and wounding a number of Libyans and Americans.

The crowd built at the consulate — a one-story villa surrounded by a large garden in an upscale Benghazi neighborhood — in several stages, El-Sharef said. First, a small group of gunmen arrived, then civilians angry over the film. Later, heavily armed men with armored vehicles, some with rocket-propelled grenades, joined and the numbers swelled to more than 200.

The gunmen fired into the air outside the consulate. Libyan security guarding the site pulled out because they were so outmanned. "We thought there was no way for the protesters to storm the compound, which had fortified walls," he said.

Libyan security advised the Americans to evacuate at that point, but the advice was ignored, he said. There was shooting in the air from inside the consulate compound, he said.

At this point, el-Sharef continued, the crowd stormed the compound. The consulate was looted and burned, while plainclothes security men were sent to evacuate the personnel.

Stevens probably died of asphyxiation following a grenade explosion that started a fire, el-Sharef said, echoing what the Libyan doctor to whom Stevens' body was taken told the AP on Wednesday.

His account was corroborated by local journalist Ibrahim Hadya, who was at the scene. He told the AP that the consulate was stormed just as the evacuation was under way, with staff members smuggled out a side door that opens to a street other than the one where the militants and protesters gathered.

U.S. officials have said attackers broke into the main consulate building around 10:15 p.m. and set the compound on fire. Amid the evacuation, Stevens became separated from others, and staffers and security who tried to find him were forced to flee by flames, smoke and gunfire. After an hour, according to U.S. officials, U.S. and Libyan officials drove the attackers from the consulate.

The next attack came hours later. Around 30 American staffers along with Libyans had been evacuated to the safe house while a plane arrived from Tripoli with a joint U.S.-Libyan security group that was to fly them back to the capital, el-Sharef said.

El-Sharef said the original plan was for a separate Libyan security unit to escort the evacuees to the airport. Instead, the joint unit went from the airport to the safe house, possibly because they were under the impression they were dealing with a hostage situation, he said. The militant attack coincided with the joint team's arrival at the safe house, he said.

That the attackers knew the safe house's location suggests a "spy" inside the security forces tipped off the militants, el Sharef said.

U.S. officials have not confirmed the account. They have spoken of an attack on the consulate's annex that killed two Americans, but said their report on the incident was still preliminary.

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