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Special forces team leaves Libya after militia protest

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 18, 2015

STUTTGART, Germany — A U.S. special operations forces team dispatched to Libya to work with government forces were forced out of the country on Monday by members of a local militia,, U.S. Africa Command said on Friday.

The deployment of a small number of U.S. forces to Libya was part of an ongoing effort to assist the Libyan government, AFRICOM said.

“What I can tell you is that with the concurrence of Libyan officials, U.S. military personnel traveled to Libya on Dec. 14 to foster relationships and enhance communication with their counterparts in the Libyan National Army,” said Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo, an AFRICOM spokesman.

“While in Libya, members of a local militia demanded that the U.S. personnel depart. In an effort to avoid conflict, they did leave, without incident,” Falvo added.

On Monday, a group of U.S. troops was pictured at an airstrip not far from the town of Sabratha, an Islamic State stronghold in western Libya. Pictures of the troops were posted to a Facebook page purported to belong to the Libya air force. The men were dressed in civilian clothes and armed with assault rifles.

On occasion, the U.S. military has conducted operations in Libya, where there are increasing concerns that the Islamic State group might establish a foothold in the war-torn country.

In November, the U.S. conducted an airstrike in Libya that killed the country’s top Islamic State leader. In the past, U.S. special operations forces have also conducted raids, most notably when Delta Force troops seized an al-Qaida fighter in 2014 who was linked to the deadly attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in 2012 in Benghazi.

In the wake of NATO’s intervention backing rebel fighters in Libya, which resulted in the 2011 death of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the country is in chaos, a failed state with two rival but powerless governments and dozens of warlords and militia groups fighting it out.

In 2014, the U.S. along with NATO had plans to launch a formal training mission with the Libyan government, but that effort was postponed because of security concerns and political disarray. However, with the signing of a U.N.-sponsored peace deal on Thursday aimed at unifying Libya’s two rival governments, there are signs that the West is seeking to re-engage in the country. British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said his country is now prepared to send up to 1,000 troops to Libya in a noncombat advisory capacity.

While it remains unclear whether the Pentagon will take similar action, AFRICOM has conducted small periodic missions to Libya in the past.

“I wouldn’t characterize it as a formal training mission, but I will say that the U.S. military does meet with multiple regional groups across Libya in an effort to help the Libyans re-establish a safe and secure environment,” Falvo said. “Our efforts to establish regional security are in support of the Department of State and United Nations’ efforts to seek agreement of rival factions on a national unity government in Libya.”

vandiver.john@stripes.com