US officials tell ABC News the United States plans to begin re-establishing its diplomatic presence in Tripoli over the coming weeks now that rebel forces have taken control of much of the Libyan capital.
The first step comes this weekend when the State Department will send a small team of technical staff to Tripoli to assess the security situation on the ground and to assess the condition of the US embassy, which sustained significant damage since being shuttered in February.
Depending on the team’s findings, American diplomats could return to Tripoli as early as next week, officials said, though they suggested that perhaps that timeline was too optimistic given security concerns and what is believed to be extensive damage to the embassy compound. The United States is under diplomatic pressure to show support for the rebel leadership by re-establishing its embassy in Tripoli, especially since several European countries already have, or are preparing to do so.
It’s unclear whether the Obama administration would send its ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, with the first group to re-open the embassy, though the State Department has said Cretz will eventually return to Tripoli. One official suggested that Chris Stevens, who has been the U.S. liaison to the Transitional National Council in Benghazi for the past several months, could go first with a small team of diplomats.
The State Department is also weighing whether to send Jeffrey Feltman, it’s top diplomat for the region, to Tripoli. He would be the highest-ranking American official to visit the capital since the uprising began earlier this year. Officials considered sending him there on Friday, after a big international conference on Libya in Paris, but decided to postpone the visit, in part for security reasons.
A video posted on YouTube in early June, which officials say appears to have been shot inside the American embassy, shows evidence of significant damage and looting.
ABC News’ Jeffrey Kofman in Tripoli tried to visit the embassy Thursday, but was turned away by rebels who were guarding the compound. He saw evidence of damage, including windows blackened by fire. Kofman also obtained exclusive cell phone footage shot from a nearby rooftop on May 1 showing huge plumes of black smoke rising from the embassy after it was ransacked and looted. Neighbors told him Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s soldiers were the ones who stormed the embassy grounds, not a spontaneous mob like the regime claimed at the time.
According to the Washington Post, which also interviewed Libyans who live near the embassy, it appears the regime encouraged busloads of people to storm the empty embassy on May 1 after reports that one of Gadhafi’s sons had been killed in a NATO strike. Witnesses told the newspaper they saw massive looting and that parts of the building were eventually set on fire.
The Obama administration pulled all of its diplomats out of Tripoli in late February just hours before the Gadhafi regime was hit with strong sanctions that froze billions of dollars of the longtime dictator’s assets.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Paris for the Friends of Libya conference, where she announced that the U.S. has already released about $700 million of Gadhafi’s frozen assets for the rebels to pay fuel bills, operational costs, and salaries. That is part of roughly $1.5 billion the UN authorized the US to release last week to pay for fuel, UN humanitarian relief efforts, and other emergency needs.
The U.S. government hopes to hear from the rebel leadership about their plans for a post-Gadhafi Libya and to see what their needs are. The Obama administration has expressed its hope the United Nations will play a large role in the rebuilding effort.