US believes Benghazi attack was pre-planned
US PRESIDENT Barack Obama yesterday condemned “in the strongest terms” the “outrageous and shocking attack” that killed four US diplomats in Benghazi.
He vowed repeatedly that the killers will be brought to justice, and promised that it “will not break the bonds between the US and Libya”.
The dead include J Christopher Stevens, who had been the US envoy to the rebels who overthrew Col Muammar Gadafy before he was appointed ambassador.
Mr Stevens was the sixth US ambassador to die in extremist violence and the first since 1979. It was not immediately clear whether he was shot dead or died of smoke inhalation.
US officials believe the attack – which left the US consulate in flames – and possibly other anti-American protests in Cairo and Gaza were not simply the work of a spontaneous street mob. The fact they occurred on the anniversary of 9/11 strengthened speculation they were planned in advance by al-Qaeda or it allies.
In her remarks, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton referred to “an attack by a small and savage group – not the people or government of Libya”.
The Pentagon announced it is sending 50 marines to reinforce US diplomatic posts in Libya, while the US state department withdrew all “non-emergency” personnel and advised Americans not to travel to the North African country.
Mr Obama alluded to a controversy raised by the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney over a statement issued before the Benghazi attack by the US embassy in Cairo. Hoping to avoid a violent response to a film made by an Israeli-American businessman in California which depicts the prophet Muhammad as a child molester, womaniser and ruthless killer, the embassy denounced “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feeling of Muslims”, adding that it condemns “efforts to offend believers of all religions”.
Mr Romney portrayed the statement as “akin to an apology” and broke his own promise not to criticise Mr Obama on the anniversary of 9/11 by issuing a statement at 10.30pm on Tuesday saying it was “disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathise with those who waged the attacks”.
The White House said it had not cleared the statement from the embassy in Cairo.
Mr Obama’s campaign staff condemned Mr Romney for launching a political attack “at a time when the US is confronting the tragic death of . . . our diplomatic officers”.
The president addressed Mr Romney’s criticism indirectly. “Since our founding, the US has been a nation that respects all faiths,” he said. “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None.”
Mr Obama said it was “especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi because it is a city that he helped to save”.
During the uprising that overthrew Col Gadafy “both Secretary Clinton and I relied deeply on his knowledge of the situation on the ground there,” the president added.
Mrs Clinton said Mr Stevens “fell in love with the Middle East as a young Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in Morocco”. During the Libyan uprising, “he arrived on a cargo ship in the port of Benghazi and began building our relationships with Libya’s revolutionaries. He risked his life to stop a tyrant, then gave his life trying to help build a better Libya.”
Mr Romney, campaigning in Florida, mimicked the staging of a presidential announcement, standing before dark blue curtains and American flags, to denounce the attack in Libya as “outrageous and disgusting”. He had endured a barrage of criticism for blaming Mr Obama for the Cairo embassy statement, but Mr Romney persevered, saying “the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathising with those who breached our embassy in Egypt”.
As he shook hands with supporters, Mr Romney also commented on Binyamin Netanyahu’s complaint that Mr Obama had refused to meet him at the UN later this month – a complaint denied by the White House. Mr Obama will not meet any foreign leaders during his short visit to New York.
“I can’t ever imagine if the prime minister of Israel asked to meet with me, I can’t imagine ever saying no,” Mr Romney said.
“They’re our closest allies in the Middle East.”
Mr Romney and Mr Netanyahu have been friends since working together at the Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s.