TRIPOLI, Libya — A car bomb targeted the French Embassy in the Libyan capital Tuesday, wounding two French guards and a Libyan teenager and underscoring the central government's inability to stop the oil-rich North African nation's slide toward deepening lawlessness.
There have been several attacks on diplomatic missions in Benghazi, but Tuesday's was the first in Tripoli since the civil war ended with Moammar Gadhafi's death. On Sept. 11, four Americans — including the U.S. Ambassador in Libya Chris Stevens — were killed when militants attacked the U.S. diplomatic mission in the eastern city.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack on the French Embassy in Tripoli, but many blamed either Islamic extremists avenging France's military intervention in Mali or militias seeking to send a message that they're winning the struggle for control and that cracking down on them only backfires.
French President Francois Hollande denounced the attack as an assault not only on France but all countries engaged in the fight against terrorism.
"France expects the Libyan authorities to shed the fullest light on this unacceptable act, so that the perpetrators are identified and brought to justice," Hollande said in a statement from Paris.
Two years after the country's civil war, Libya is struggling to maintain security, build a unified army and rein in militias, which include rebels who fought to oust Gadhafi in 2011 and have refused to lay down their arms.
Prime Minister Ali Zidan and his defense and interior ministers have been increasingly cracking down on some militias in the capital. Zidan also has reached out to France and other countries for training and technical aid in building the country's security forces from scratch.
On the one hand, the Libyan government heavily depends on security provided by commanders of powerful militias, with top Libyan leaders dubbing some "legitimate" forces while others like Ansar al-Shariah are labeled as outlaws.
However, both categories of militias often act with impunity, running their own prison cells, making arrests and taking confessions in total absence of state control and oversight. They at the same time enjoy steady and lavish salaries and rewards.
"The Number One party benefiting from these attacks is the militias and the extremists. Whenever we take a step forward, an attack by these groups drags us back," said lawmaker Tawfiq Breik, from the liberal-leaning National Forces Alliance bloc in parliament.
"The message to the outside world is that Libya is slipping into terrorism. The goal is to empty the capital of foreign and diplomatic missions like Benghazi. The big loser is the Libya people, if no decisive measures are taken."
Libyans have been staging protests and sit-ins demanding that authorities label all militias illegal. The protesters want militia commanders and their fighters to integrate into the Libyan army as individuals. If they integrate into the army as groups, they say the fighters will maintain their loyalty to their militia commanders.
The assault will increase pressure already mounting on the country's top army chief Maj. Gen. Youssef al-Mangoush who is blamed for Libya's failure to take any concrete steps to build its army, allowing the militias to expand.
France is a major ally of the Libyan government and the assault on the embassy in Tripoli was seen to many Libyans as equal in its impact as the killing of Stevens, who aided Libyans during the war.
French officials, meanwhile, have expressed concerns about the possibility of greater instability in Libya, where they believe at least some rebel fighters from Mali fled following France's military onslaught to dislodge al-Qaida-linked militants who controlled the vast north of the West African country for months.
Last week, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, threatened to seek revenge against all countries taking part in the war in Mali, warning that no one who "participated in this ferocious attack" will be safe. It called on "all Muslims to target France and its interests and subjects inside and outside France until it withdraws the last soldier from the land of the Muslims and lifts its support of rulers of the region." That threat came as part of a question and answer session on AQIM's new Twitter account.
Several diplomats, relief agencies and churches have come under attack and scores of Libyan security officials have been assassinated in the post-Gadhafi turmoil. In most cases, the government fails to nail down culprits or make arrests, either because of fear of counterattacks or the lack of capabilities to carry out a proper investigation.
The lawlessness has prompted the U.S., Britain and other Western countries to close their missions in Benghazi and call on their nationals to evacuate the city.
In the latest attack, the explosives-laden car was detonated just outside the embassy building in Tripoli's upscale al-Andalus neighborhood early in the morning, before any of the embassy staff had arrived inside the diplomatic mission, two Libyan security officials said.
The strong explosion wounded two French guards and set a fire at the embassy entrance that engulfed some of the offices inside, the officials said. A Libyan girl, who was having breakfast in a nearby house, was also hurt from the blast, Deputy Prime Minister Awad al-Barassi said on his official Facebook page.
Two cars parked outside the embassy caught fire and two other nearby buildings were also damaged, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. Firefighters rushed to the scene of the attack as smoke billowed into the sky. Video from the scene showed charred walls on surrounding houses.
The officials said the motives for the attack were not immediately clear. The Libyan government condemned the attack and said in a statement posted on its official website that it "rejects such actions, which are directly targeting Libya's security and stability."
At Hollande's request, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was to travel to Tripoli later Tuesday to assess the situation and bring home the two wounded French guards.
Ahead of his flight, Fabius said "this bombing was intended to kill, but France will not bend." He added that France was reinforcing security throughout the Mideast and the Sahel region of Africa.
French institutions in Tripoli, including schools and cultural centers, were ordered to immediately suspend their activities.
France, along with Britain, took a leading role in the NATO-led air campaign against Gadhafi's forces.
Hollande's predecessor, President Nicolas Sarkozy, was hailed by many in Libya for France's role, and Paris has sought to maintain close economic and political contacts with the new leadership in Tripoli.
The attack site was later cordoned off, with heavy national guard and army units with armored vehicles surrounding the area. Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Awad al-Barassi and Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdelaziz visited the site.
Libyan Saqr al-Qarifi, whose house is adjacent to the French Embassy, said the explosion woke him up around 7 a.m.
"I heard a loud boom and immediately after that, windows were shattered and parts of my house were damaged," he said.
Associated Press writers Maamoun Youssef and Maggie Michael in Cairo and Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed to this report.
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