LONDON — British, Dutch and German authorities urged their nationals to leave the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Thursday, citing a specific and imminent threat to Westerners days after a deadly attack by Islamist militants in neighboring Algeria.
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-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb — AQIM — the North African wing of al-Qaida.
The Netherlands and Germany have also urged their citizens to leave Benghazi.
Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Thijs van Son said there are four Dutch citizens registered as being in Benghazi, and possibly two more. The German Foreign Ministry declined to give any further details to explain its warning.
At least 38 hostages were killed in an attack on the remote In Amenas gas complex in Algeria, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Libyan border. French forces are also fighting Islamist rebels in Mali.
"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," the Foreign Office said in a statement.
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," a Western diplomat said. "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."
"Following the Mali events, foreigners are worried and are taking precautionary steps. Benghazi hardly has any foreigners at the moment and few foreign consulates," he said.
British Airways said it would continue operating flights to the Libyan capital Tripoli. The airline operates three flights a week between London's Heathrow airport and Tripoli. Its next flight to Libya is scheduled for Sunday.
The eastern city of Benghazi was the cradle of the 2011 revolution that toppled former dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and Libya has been awash with weapons since then, its shaky nascent institutions struggling to rein in armed groups.
Benghazi in particular has been the scene of power struggles between various armed Islamist factions. U.S. intelligence officials say Islamist militants with ties to al-Qaida affiliates were most likely involved in the deadly Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. mission in the city, Libya's second biggest.
While Britain's move may be only precautionary, it is unlikely to inspire confidence in a country keen to attract foreign cash and developers for its oil fields and other sectors after years of chronic under-investment and war.
The bulk of Libya's oil wealth, around 80 percent, is located in the east of the country but the oil installations are far from Benghazi and oil is not piped through there.
Giuma Attaigha, deputy leader of the ruling general national congress, told Reuters Libya must make foreigners feel safe.
"This statement is a cause of concern and we hope it is just precautionary because it is the right of any country to take care of its people when it feels that they are in danger," he said.
"This forces all of us, starting with the security forces in the interior ministry, to take all necessary steps and quickly to make the foreigners feel safe and to protect citizens in Benghazi against terrorism."
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