U.S. and Libyan officials are giving significantly different accounts of the gunfire and rocket-propelled grenade attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
CAIRO — Libyans tried to rescue Ambassador Chris Stevens, cheering “God is great” and rushing him to a hospital after they discovered him still clinging to life inside the U.S. Consulate, according to witnesses and a new video that emerged Monday from last week’s attack in the city of Benghazi.
The group of Libyans had stumbled across Stevens’ seemingly lifeless form inside a dark room and didn’t know who he was, only that he was a foreigner, the man who shot the video and two other witnesses told The Associated Press.
The account underlines the confusion that reigned during the assault by protesters and heavily armed gunmen that overwhelmed the consulate in Benghazi last Tuesday night, killing four Americans, including Stevens, who died from smoke inhalation soon after he was found. U.S. officials are still trying to piece together how the top American diplomat in Libya got separated from others as staffers were evacuated, suffocating in what is believed to be a consulate safe room.
The Libyans who found him expressed frustration that there was no ambulance and no first aid on hand, leaving him to be slung over a man’s shoulder to be carried to a car.
“There was not a single ambulance to carry him. Maybe he was handled the wrong way,” said Fahd al-Bakoush, a freelance videographer who shot the footage. “They took him to a private car.”
U.S. and Libyan officials are also trying to determine who was behind the attack. Still unclear was whether it had been planned beforehand or was sparked by an anti-Islam film made in the United States that, hours earlier, had sparked protests at the American Embassy in Cairo.
On Sunday, Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif contended foreign extremists had been plotting the attack for months and timed it for Tuesday’s 9/11 anniversary.
However, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said that it appeared spontaneous and unplanned and that extremists with heavier weapons “hijacked” the protest. She noted Libya is awash with weapons.
A CIA memo sent to U.S. lawmakers this weekend, and obtained by The Associated Press, says intelligence still suggests the demonstrations in Benghazi “were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo” and “evolved into a direct assault” on the diplomatic posts by “extremists.”
Stevens may not have been the target of the attacks in any case. One media report claims that key documents, including one with the names of Libyans working with Americans, were taken from the consulate.
That same report, in the Independent, quotes a Libyan military official as saying a separate safe house also came under attack from heavy weapons: “I don’t know how they found the place to carry out the attack. It was planned, the accuracy with which the mortars hit us was too good for any ordinary revolutionaries,” Captain Obeidi said. “It began to rain down on us. About six mortars fell directly on the path to the villa.”
Indeed, news services reported last week that Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy, briefing lawmakers last week, said the attack appeared to be planned because it was so extensive and because of the “proliferation” of small and medium weapons at the scene. That also would seem to contradict Rice’s stance.
Finally, ABC News reported that Glen Doherty, one of the former Navy SEALs who was killed, was not there to provide security but was on a mission to track down shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and destroy them. “Doherty said that he traveled throughout Libya chasing reports of the weapons, and once they were found, his team would destroy them on the spot by bashing them with hammers or repeatedly running them over with their vehicles,” ABC said.
While Rice pointed to anger at an anti-Muslim film that appeared on YouTube as the spark for the demonstration, Doherty’s mission suggests that there were aspects of U.S. policy that may have directly affected extremists in the country — and angered them. That also would strengthen the case that this was a planned attack.
Soon after the attack, Libyan civilians roamed freely around the trashed consulate, its walls blacked and furniture burned. Among them were the videographer al-Bakoush, and a photographer and art student he often works with.
They heard a panicked shout, “I stepped over a dead man,” and rushed to see what was going on, al-Bakoush said. The body had been found inside a dark room with a locked door accessible only by a window. A group of men pulled him out and realized he was a foreigner and still alive.
He was breathing, and his eyelids flickered, al-Bakoush said.
“He was alive,” he said. “No doubt. His face was blackened, and he was like a paralyzed person.”
Video taken by al-Bakoush and posted on YouTube shows Stevens being carried through a window. “Bring him out, man,” someone shouts. “Out of the way, out of the way!”
“Alive, Alive!” come other shouts, then a cheer of “God is great.”
The next scene shows Stevens lying on a tile floor, with one man touching his neck to check his pulse. Al-Bakoush said that after that scene, they put Stevens in a private car to rush to the hospital.
The video has been authenticated since Stevens’ face is clearly visible and he is wearing the same white T-shirt seen in authenticated photos of him being carried away on another man’s shoulders, presumably moments later. The photographer and student who were with al-Bakoush at the scene gave the same account as he did.
“We were happy to see him alive. The youths tried to rescue him. But there was no security, no ambulances, nothing to help,” said Ahmed Shams, the 22-year-old arts student.
When they entered the consulate, “there was no one around. There was no fire fighters, no ambulances, no relief,” said the photographer, Abdel-Qader Fadl.
The accounts of all three witnesses mesh with that of the doctor who treated Stevens that night.
Dr. Ziad Abu Zeid told The Associated Press last week that Stevens was nearly lifeless when he was brought by Libyans, with no other Americans around, to the Benghazi hospital where he worked. He said that Stevens had severe asphyxia from the smoke and that he tried for 90 minutes to resuscitate him with no success. Only later did security officials confirm it was Stevens.
Fadl said he drove to the hospital behind the car carrying Stevens.
During the assault, more than 30 U.S. staffers were evacuated from the consulate. So far, U.S. officials have not announced the results of an investigation into the circumstances of the four Americans’ deaths.
They have said preliminary reports said that amid the evacuation, Stevens and foreign-service officer Sean Smith were inside the consulate with a regional security officer. They got separated in the smoke. The security officer and others went back in to try to find the pair and found Smith dead. They pulled him out but flames and gunfire forced them to flee before they could find Stevens.
Al-Bakoush and his colleagues said that once they learned his identity, they were stunned Stevens had been alone.
“I’ve never seen incompetence and negligence like this, from the two sides, the Americans and the Libyans,” he said. “You can sacrifice everyone but rescue the ambassador. He is the ambassador for God’s sake.”
In a related development, Wanif al Sharif, the deputy interior minister who was in charge of eastern Libya and headed the investigation, was fired, according to the Libya Herald, because of the attack. Sharif was the only Libyan official to publicly say that there had been a protest before the attack. He didn’t respond to calls Monday seeking comment.
Even before the assault, many Libyans had complained about deteriorating security in Benghazi, where the uprising against Gadhafi first erupted. Scores of rogue militias have been drafted by the government to provide security in the absence of a regular force, and the role of extremists, including members of Ansar al Shariah, has been controversial.
The city is divided block by block among the groups, which have kept the weapons they procured during the uprising. Many of the militias occupy bases lined with tanks and machine-gun mounted trucks and are led by self-styled colonels.
Compiled from The Associated Press, The Washington Post and McClatchy Newspapers reports.