WASHINGTON: The United States on Saturday evacuated its embassy staff in Libya as they faced a "real risk" from fierce fighting in Tripoli and warned all Americans in the country to leave "immediately."
Although the diplomatic mission had been operating on limited staffing, the remaining team, including Ambassador Anne Patterson, drove overland to Tunisia to safety in an operation aided by the US military.
The evacuation came only hours after the Libyan government warned the country could be torn apart by clashes between rival militias for control of Tripoli airport.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking during a visit to Paris, said there had been a "real risk" to personnel and insisted that the US was "suspending" operations, but not closing the embassy in the Libyan capital.
"Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the US embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya," deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement.
"We are committed to supporting the Libyan people during this challenging time, and are currently exploring options for a permanent return to Tripoli as soon as the security situation on the ground improves."
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said the "embassy staff was driven in vehicles to Tunisia" in a five-hour operation which went off smoothly and was closely monitored from the air by "F-16's, ISR assets and an Airborne Response Force with MV-22 Ospreys."
The Marine security guards based at the embassy were also evacuated and guarded the convoy, but US officials would not confirm how many people had been pulled out for security reasons, and gave only a few operational details.
The State Department also issued an updated travel warning cautioning Americans against travelling to Libya, and urging all those in the country to "depart immediately."
The statement cautioned that "the security situation in Libya remains unpredictable and unstable."
"The Libyan government has not been able to adequately build its military and police forces and improve security following the 2011 revolution. Many military-grade weapons remain in the hands of private individuals, including anti-aircraft weapons that may be used against civilian aviation."
Fresh clashes broke out Friday between rival Libyan militias battling for control of Tripoli airport, the target of 13 days of shelling that have disrupted air links to the outside world.
"Regrettably, we had to take this step because the location of our embassy is in very close proximity to intense fighting and ongoing violence between armed Libyan factions," Harf said.
The staff would now travel onward from Tunisia, Harf said, adding that in the meantime they "will operate from Washington and other posts in the region."
Memories are still raw for many Americans of the 2012 militant attack on a US mission in eastern Benghazi when the ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American personnel were killed.
The attack roiled the US political landscape, and Republicans still accuse the US administration of seeking to cover up the true events of the assault by dozens of armed Islamic militants.
Libya's main international airport has been shut since fighting erupted on July 13, in violence that has killed at least 47 people and wounded 120, according to the Libyan health ministry.
The clashes, the most violent since the overthrow of dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011, started with an assault on the airport by a coalition of groups, mainly Islamists, which has since been backed by fighters from third city Misrata.
Harf renewed US calls "that Libyans must immediately cease hostilities and begin negotiations to resolve their grievances."
Several countries including Saudi Arabia and Algeria closed their embassies in Libya earlier this year.