WASHINGTON – Four U.S. military personnel have been released after being detained briefly by the Libyan government, the U.S. State Department said on Saturday.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who hours earlier had announced the Americans’ detention, did not say why they were held, though The New York Times reported that the incident unfolded following a confrontation at a checkpoint where gunshots were fired.
“All four U.S. military personnel being held in Libyan government custody have been released,” Psaki said in a statement just after midnight. “We are still trying to ascertain the facts of the incident.”
According to Psaki, the four “were operating in an area near Sabratha as part of security preparedness efforts when they were taken into custody.”
The Times, citing a witness and an unnamed Obama administration official, said a vehicle was damaged when the shots were fired.
Sabratha, known for its Roman ruins, is located 65 km west of the capital Tripoli.
A U.S. official,speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that the four were released just two hours after the State Department announced their detention.
The military staff were attached to the security team at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and may have been scouting escape routes for possible future use by diplomats, the Times reported earlier, citing unnamed U.S. officials.
The personnel were detained at a checkpoint and moved to the Interior Ministry, according to the Times.
Americans in Libya have been targeted more than once since 2011, when the regime of strongman Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown by local rebel groups backed by U.S. and NATO air power.
In September, 2012 four people, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi by Islamist gunmen with alleged al-Qaida ties.
Ambassador Christopher Stevens, a popular diplomat and fluent Arabic speaker, was the first U.S. ambassador killed while on duty in three decades.
In mid-November, the State Department revealed that since January it has been quietly offering a $10 million reward to help track down the militants behind the attack.
Libya has been struggling to integrate the rebel groups that helped topple the Gadhafi regime into the regular armed forces. Militias have carved out their own fiefdoms, each with its own ideology and regional allegiances.
The vast, mostly desert country is effectively ruled by a patchwork of local militias and is awash in heavy weapons looted from Gadhafi’s arsenals.
In the two years since Gadhafi was overthrown and killed by rebels, Libya has seen scores of attacks targeting security forces and foreign missions, as well as more generalized violence.
In the past week, a suicide car bombing killed at least 13 people in Bersis, about 50 km from Benghazi.
There was also a fatal attack on an American schoolteacher this month in Benghazi.
And in October, Prime Minister Ali Zidan was abducted by gunmen in Tripoli and then freed hours later.
In November, Secretary of State John Kerry and his British counterpart, William Hague, met in London with Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and agreed to help Libya crack down on militia violence.
The Pentagon also said that the U.S. military was prepared to train between 5,000 and 8,000 Libyan Army troops at a base in Bulgaria. There were also plans to train a separate counterterrorism unit, said Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.
But Libya and the United States have also had disagreements. In early October, U.S. commandos seized senior alleged al-Qaida figure Abu Anas al-Libi — indicted for the twin 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa — on the streets of Tripoli and whisked him away to custody aboard a warship.
The suspect was then moved to New York, where he pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Libi’s capture embarrassed the Libyan government, which denounced it as “kidnapping” and claimed it had not been given advance notice of the seizure.