WASHINGTON — The detention of four U.S. military personnel in Libya on Friday was preceded by a confrontation at a checkpoint in which gunshots were fired and a vehicle was damaged, a witness in Libya and an Obama administration official said Saturday.
Details about the confrontation, which occurred about an hour’s drive west from Tripoli, remained unclear Saturday. The four military personnel, assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, were held for several hours by the Ministry of the Interior and then released. They were likely U.S. special-operations forces, which have been deployed to Libya, an administration official said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Africa Command, which oversees military operations in Africa, declined to comment on accounts of the episode in Libya. But an administration official, who declined to be identified, acknowledged that Libyan forces had fired their weapons and that a vehicle driven by two of the Americans appeared to have been damaged.
The State Department said the four Americans had been stopped in western Libya near the historic Roman ruins in the coastal city of Sabratha. The area about 40 miles west of Tripoli is a popular tourist area.
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The department said the four had been involved in “security preparedness efforts,” which other administration officials said involved canvassing potential evacuation routes. The road where they were stopped is not far from the main road to the Tunisian border.
No one was injured in the confrontation, and the military personnel were taken to the U.S. Embassy after their release, a Defense Department official said. In Libya, a witness said in an interview that a car with two Americans had run into a problem at a checkpoint between Friday night.
According to the witness, who asked not to be named, the Americans were reluctant to stop because “they were afraid that it was a fake checkpoint” where they might be robbed or detained. Many checkpoints in Libya are controlled by local militias.
Another car with two other Americans proceeded past the checkpoint and was later stopped at a second checkpoint, the witness said.
An Obama administration official disputed reports from Libya that the Americans had returned fire.
There also were conflicting reports about the damage to one of the Americans’ vehicles. Some said that it was set on fire; others said it was disabled in some other way.
Administration officials said Saturday that they were still gathering information about the episode. But the administration’s reluctance to discuss it in detail also appeared to reflect sensitivities about the U.S. relationship with the Libyan authorities.
The confrontation was the latest brush with danger for Americans in Libya, where the security situation has deteriorated significantly since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
This month, an American teacher was killed in the eastern city of Benghazi. On Sept. 11, 2012, the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in attacks on U.S. outposts in Benghazi.
The violence has made it difficult for Americans to move freely throughout the country.
“The U.S. Embassy in Libya and U.S. Africa Command are reviewing this incident,” said the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby. “The details remain unclear,” he said, adding, “We are grateful our service members were returned promptly.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.