WASHINGTON/BENGHAZI, Libya: The United States has moved military forces closer to Libya since the 2012 Benghazi attack so they will be ready to respond to threats against diplomatic personnel, a Pentagon spokesman said Monday.
The deployment came as a powerful car bomb exploded near a hospital in the eastern Libyan city, killing and wounding dozens in what officials said was the first such attack on civilians since Moammar Gadhafi’s ouster.
“We are prepared to respond if necessary, if conditions deteriorate or if we were called upon,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters.
“Obviously we have moved assets and personnel,” he said.
The U.S. Benghazi mission came under attack on Sept. 11, 2012, by armed insurgents who set fire to the main consular facility and then attacked a nearby CIA annex. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
The Pentagon has since faced criticism by those who said it should have been able to more quickly mobilize forces to thwart the attack.
Little said the Pentagon had stationed additional military elements – aimed at protecting diplomats or helping evacuate them if necessary – at the NATO base in Sigonella, on the Italian island of Sicily.
He confirmed some of the troops had come from an air base in southern Spain, where 500 marines were recently deployed along with MV-Osprey – a troop transport plane that takes off like a helicopter, without a runway – as well as with refueling aircraft.
In recent days, violence has ratcheted up in Benghazi, illustrating the growing insecurity in Libya, where authorities struggling to establish effective security forces are engaged in a standoff with armed militias.
A car bomb exploded Monday near a hospital, in one of the biggest attacks since the end of the civil war that ousted Gadhafi.
Officials gave contradicting death tolls, however, as information trickled in about the devastating bombing which destroyed a restaurant and damaged cars and buildings near Al-Jala hospital in the center of Benghazi.
Deputy Interior Minister Abdullah Massoud said 15 people were killed and another 30 wounded in the attack on the eastern city, cradle of the 2011 armed uprising in which Gadhafi was killed.
He stressed it was only a “preliminary toll.”
But Health Ministry spokesman Salah Abdel-Dayem later told AFP in Tripoli that four people died and six were wounded.
Dozens of people, many of them youths, rushed to the scene of the attack, some even volunteering to gather body parts and place them in clear plastic bags, AFP journalists reported. Justice Minister Salah al-Mirghani denounced a “terrorist act” and vowed the authorities would “do everything possible to arrest the criminals.”
Mirghani also urged “unity” among Libyans as commentators noted the bombing was the first to target civilians in Libya since the 2011 uprising that toppled Gadhafi’s regime and to take place in broad daylight.
On Wednesday, Washington reduced its embassy staff in Tripoli, saying the security situation had deteriorated as a result of the seizure of government buildings by former rebels.