May 21 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. shifted a Marine contingent to Italy to prepare for the possible evacuation of American personnel from Tripoli, citing lessons learned from the 2012 attack in Benghazi as political turmoil intensified in Libya.
The Defense Department shifted the unit from Spain to Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, bringing the number of Marines there to about 250, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said yesterday. The U.S. has seven V-2 Osprey planes and three C-130s transport aircraft at the base, Kirby said.
The Marines were moved as a “precautionary measure” to be ready “in a posture and in a location that, should they be needed in North Africa, specifically -- yes, specifically Libya that they would be ready to do so,” Kirby told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. “One of the things that we learned from Benghazi was the need to have an agile footprint” with forces that can be quickly deployed.
The deployment was disclosed as former Libyan army general Khalifa Haftar is leading a self-proclaimed National Army to fight armed Islamist groups that have gained strength in the three years since the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi. Haftar’s forces have attacked Islamist groups in Benghazi and have stormed the Libya parliament in the capital Tripoli.
The deadly attack on the U.S. embassy compound in Benghazi in September 2012 that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans continues to be a highly contested political issue. Earlier this month, the Republican-led House of Representatives voted to create a special committee to investigate the attack and the White House response.
Republicans say President Barack Obama’s administration failed to send military forces in time as the Benghazi attack unfolded. The Pentagon has said it didn’t have troops close enough to be deployed to Libya during the attack.
Republicans also allege that the Obama administration has engaged in a cover-up in the aftermath of the attacks, while Democrats say the probe is in part aimed at weakening Hillary Clinton, secretary of state at the time of the attacks and a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2016.
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