U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, disappeared in the smoke and fire of a building under attack in Benghazi, Libya, early Wednesday.
Only when his body was delivered to the Benghazi airport for transport to Tripoli and then Germany hours after the attack was it clear that he had died, according to senior administration officials who briefed reporters in Washington.
They described the harrowing four and a half hours that the U.S. consulate compound was under attack, starting late Tuesday about 10 pm Libya time (about 2000 GMT) and lasting until 0030 GMT Wednesday.
Stevens was the first American ambassador killed abroad in more than 30 years. Three other American diplomats were killed in the attack and at least three others were injured.
It was not clear if the attack was provoked by an anti-Islamic, US-produced film, Innocence of Muslims, or the result of careful planning by a terrorist group. US officials declined to comment on the motivation of the attack, saying only that it was a "complex attack" and it was too early in the investigation to tell.
Quilliam, a British-based counterterrorism think tank, said it believed the assault "was a well planned terrorist attack" that would have occurred regardless of the protests against the film.
Quilliam noted that 24 hours before the attack, the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, posted a video on Jihadist forums urging Libyans to avenge the killing of his second in command, Abu Yahya al-Libi. The video marked the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
Ambassador Stevens and two others - a security officer and Sean Smith, an information management officer - were alone in the main building when it came under fire after the attackers gained access to the diplomatic compound.
"They became separated from each other due to the heavy, dark smoke while they were trying to evacuate the burning building," one US official told reporters. The security officer managed to get out, and led several other security units back into the burning building to rescue Stevens and Smith. They found Smith's body, but could not locate the ambassador.
Heavy fire continued while Libyan and U.S. security officials evacuated the 25 to 30 people remaining in the consulate buildings to the safe haven of an annex. The attackers then turned their fire on the annex for another two hours, killing another two Americans.
Libyan and US security forces managed to get the situation under control by 0030 GMT, or after 2 a.m. Libyan time. It was not clear if any of the attackers were killed.
The officials were "not clear on the circumstances" of Stevens' death. It appeared that unknown Libyans may have taken him to a Benghazi hospital, but it's not known if he was still alive at the time.
"We were not able to see him until his body was returned to us at the airport" about dawn Libyan time, the official said. An autopsy would be carried out to determine the cause of death.
The Pentagon was sending a European-based Marine Corps anti-terrorism security unit to Tripoli to secure the embassy in Tripoli, one official said. The FBI also would be involved in the investigation.
The think tank Quilliam said that the attack appeared to be the work of about 20 militants who were prepared for a military assault that included a grenade launcher. It noted Libya's failure to rebuild its defence and security sector, and said recent attacks in Benghazi included multiple attacks on the Red Cross and on the British ambassador.
Stevens made "regular and frequent" trips from Tripoli to Benghazi to check up on developments in eastern Libya, where he had spent a lot of time during the efforts to oust the late Moamer Gaddafi, one US official noted. The one-time Libyan strongman was killed in October 2011.
The officials said that the US embassy in Tripoli had been reduced to emergency staffing. The bodies of the four Americans and the rest of the staff from Benghazi and Tripoli were being evacuated to the Ramstein-Landstuhl U.S. military facilities in Germany.
Flags were lowered to half-staff Wednesday at US government buildings in honour of the fallen diplomats.
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