TRIPOLI—Deputy US Secretary of State William Burns flew to Libya Thursday amid tight security for a ceremony to honor ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans who were killed in Benghazi last week.
Burns met Foreign Minister Ashur Ben Khayal on arrival and was also expected to meet Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagur and Mohammed al-Megaryef, head of the national assembly.
Tripoli was on Thursday holding a ceremony in honour of the four Americans who were killed on September 11, when armed men attacked the US consulate in the country’s second city Benghazi and torched it.
The assault was originally blamed on protesters angered by an anti-Islam film made in America, but neither US nor Libyan officials have excluded the possibility that it was a pre-planned operation supported by Al-Qaeda.
In Benghazi, a city once pumped with pride for spearheading the uprising that ended 42 years of dictatorship under Moammer Gadhafi, many people are furious that their reputation has been ruined by radical elements.
“We denounce such shameful actions,” said Leila Taherbughaighis, medical director of the Benghazi Medical Center where doctors fought to revive Stevens.
“It is not part of our culture and not part of our religion. The real people from Benghazi loved Chris.”
Benghazi is gearing up for Friday protests to denounce extremism and urge militias to disband.
Throughout the week, wreaths and placards condemning the attack were left outside the US mission.
“All Libyans denounce murdering Chris Stevens” and “We want to build our new peaceful Libya, terrorists out” read handwritten notes posted on the consulate’s black iron gate.
“Benghazi loved him and he loved Benghazi,” said Mohammed Ari, a guard at the Tibesti Hotel, who still recalls how Stevens would go out by himself for a jog when the city was under attack in March last year.
The death of the well-loved ambassador has become a crucial test for the Libyan authorities, with the need to bring the perpetrators to justice, tackle militias and try to uproot radical Islamist groups that reject democracy.
“The problem in Libya is that the state is paralysed,” said analyst Jaber al-Obeidi. “We thought that legitimacy through elections will give it the strength to act but, until now, we are still waiting.”
Benghazi this year has witnessed the desecration of commonwealth war graves, attacks on diplomatic targets including the British consulate and a UN convoy, and a wave assassinations targeting local military and judicial figures.
Security services are now officially in a shambles with heads rolling after the ambassador’s death and bitter power struggles crystallising in threats of collective resignation.
But activists, who are determined to break the barrier of fear raised by armed militias with varying degrees of loyalty to the state, plan to go ahead with their “Save Benghazi” rally on Friday.
“This is a demonstration against all illegitimate bodies,” said protest organizer Mohammed Abujaneh, blaming a failure to disband brigades of former rebels and extremism for the city’s chronic lack of security.
“Maybe, for the time being, people will say Benghazi is a place of terror — but not for long,” he vowed. “The people of Benghazi will show on Friday that they are against this.”