Libya said on Thursday that nothing justifies a British warning of an imminent threat to Westerners in the country’s second city of Benghazi.
“Nothing justifies this reaction,” Deputy Interior Minister Abdullah Massoud said, adding that “there are question marks about this communique,” expressing his “astonishment” at the tone of the statement from London.
Earlier on Thursday, the British Foreign Office said: “We are now aware of a specific and imminent threat to Westerners in Benghazi, and urge any British nationals who remain there against our advice to leave immediately.”
Britain’s Foreign Office declined to give details of the nature of the threat, but has warned in the past of the long reach of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African wing of the terrorist group.
Meanwhile, Air Malta said it had cancelled Thursday’s flights to Benghazi after UK’s warnings on Benghazi.
“The decision relates only for flights to be operated on Thursday 24th January,” the airline said on its website.
At least 38 hostages were killed in an attack on the remote In Amenas gas complex in Algeria, about 100 kms (60 miles) from the Libyan border. French forces are also fighting Islamist rebels in Mali.
Few Westerners are believed to be in Benghazi, which has experienced a wave of violence targeting foreign diplomats, military and police officers, including an attack in September that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
A spokeswoman for the British embassy in Tripoli said the number of British nationals in Benghazi was small, but could not comment on specific numbers.
Last week Italy suspended activity at its Benghazi consulate and withdrew staff after a gun attack on its consul.
Coupled with the Algeria hostage crisis - a plan believed to have been conceived in Mali - Western governments are now on high alert.
“The situation in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) is not just worrying, it is incredibly worrying. Everybody is on alert,” Reuters quoted a Western diplomat as saying. “But in light of the events recently (in Algeria and Mali), this could be a precautionary measure.”
Saad al-Saitim, deputy head of the Benghazi Local Council, said the warning was a setback, inciting “more fear at a time when people need to stand with us.”
Libyan ex-rebels deny Algerian reports
Libya’s former rebels from the town of Zintan on Thursday denied an Algiers newspaper report of having sold arms to Islamists who seized an Algerian gas plant last week.
“We deny the information published by the Algerian newspaper Echorouk accusing Zintan revolutionaries of having sold weapons used by terrorists” at the In Amenas plant, said the military council of Zintan, southwest of Tripoli.
The “security of sister Algeria is inseparable from the security of Libya,” it said in a statement on the Internet, condemning “the terrorist attack that targeted the interests and security of the Algerian people.”
Fighters from Zintan who fought the forces of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 were among the first rebel groups to enter Tripoli in August of that year and seized a large military arsenal abandoned by troops of the former dictator.
Algerian daily reported Wednesday that “the first interrogations of the three terrorists captured by security services have revealed that rebels in Zintan were behind the sale of the arms used against the gas plant.”
Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said last week after the siege ended in a bloodbath that three attackers had been captured during the operation launched by Algerian Special Forces against the Islamists.
Libya wants peacekeepers in Mali
Meanwhile, United Nations peacekeepers should be deployed in Mali once a French-led offensive against al-Qaeda backed militants is over to prevent uprooted Islamist fighters destabilizing neighboring countries, a Libyan minister said on Thursday.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdulaziz said Libya’s internal security was at stake, warning of the dangers of a spillover of Mali’s crisis.
“Our vision is that when the operation ends, the Security Council should consider deploying a limited peacekeeping force in the area,” Abdulaziz told reporters on the sidelines of an African Union summit in Ethiopia.
The peacekeepers should be part of a broader military exit strategy - what the minister called preventative diplomacy - that regional powers and Western governments needed to start thinking about now.
“If there is no preventive diplomacy... it will be very difficult to sustain security in the area,” Abdulaziz said.
Warplanes from France, the former colonial power, have been attacking Islamist rebels in Mali for two weeks as African troops assemble to launch a U.N.-backed military intervention to oust insurgents who seized control of northern Mali in April.