WASHINGTON — The State Department on Saturday evacuated all U.S. personnel from its embassy in Libya after clashes among rival militias in the capital intensified in recent days in the vicinity of the diplomatic mission, officials said.
Traveling in Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry cited the threat posed by "freewheeling militia violence" near the embassy in Tripoli. Kerry said some embassy functions will continue from neighboring Tunisia, where diplomats were taken.
"We will return the moment the security situation permits us to," Kerry said.
The evacuation of diplomats and other government personnel by land lasted five hours and was carried out with U.S. military aircraft providing security from the air, officials said. The decision was not made lightly, the State Department said.
"Security has to come first," spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement.
The State Department also issued a new travel warning for U.S. citizens, advising against all travel to the country and recommending that Americans in Libya leave now.
Saturday's closure of the embassy in Tripoli marked the second time the State Department has shuttered its Libya mission since 2011, when U.S. personnel left as the country's civil war broke out.
The decision was rich in symbolism, coming less than two years after militants in the eastern city of Benghazi stormed two U.S. government compounds, killing the American ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three of his colleagues.
Since that attack, which ignited a political firestorm, the Obama administration has bolstered security measures for its diplomats in Libya and has sought to take steps to stabilize the oil-rich nation reeling from decades of despotic rule.
The evacuation drew a mixed response from Rep. Edward Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who said it "seems like the right call" given the chaotic security situation in Libya, but added that it also reflected a lack of direction on the administration's part.
"Our diplomatic absence will make the hard task of achieving political stability in Libya even harder," Royce said.
In the State Department statement, Harf characterized the evacuation as "temporary" but provided no time frame for a possible return.