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Car bomb at French Embassy in Libya, a sign of spreading lawlessness

By Esam Mohamed and Maggie Michael Associated Press | Last updated: May 2, 2013 - 9:48:02 PM

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Security personnel and journalists inspect the site of a car bomb that targeted the French embassy wounding two French guards and causing extensive material damage in Tripoli, Libya, April 23. Photo: AP/Wide World photos
TRIPOLI, Libya - A car bomb exploded April 23 outside the French Embassy in Tripoli, wounding three people and partially setting the building on fire in the worst attack on a diplomatic mission in the North African nation since the U.S. ambassador was killed last year.

The attack in the heart of the capital put new pressure on the Libya’s new leaders to rein in the lawlessness that has gripped the country since 2011, when U.S. and NATO backed rebels ousted Col. Moammar Gadhafi in a civil war and then refused to lay down their arms.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but suspicion fell on the militias and the extremists in their ranks that are fighting the central government in Tripoli for control.

Some Libyans blamed Islamic militants seeking to avenge France’s military intervention in Mali to dislodge al-Qaida-linked forces from the northern part of the West African country.

The motive for the attack was not immediately clear. On its official website, the Libyan government denounced such attacks, which it said are “directly targeting Libya’s security and stability.”

French President Francois Hollande called the bombing an assault on all countries engaged in the fight against terrorism.

“France expects the Libyan authorities to shed the fullest light on this unacceptable act, so that the perpetrators are identified and brought to justice,” Pres. Hollande said in a statement from Paris.

The bombing was the first in Tripoli, which has been relatively quiet. However, the eastern city of Benghazi saw a rise in violence last year, including the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

The explosives-laden car was detonated just outside the French Embassy in Tripoli’s upscale al-Andalus neighborhood early in the morning, before any of its staff arrived, according to two Libyan security officials.

“I heard a loud boom, and immediately after that, windows were shattered and parts of my house were damaged,” said Saqr al-Qarifi, whose home is adjacent to the embassy.

The blast wounded two French guards and ignited a fire at the embassy entrance that engulfed some of the offices inside, the officials said. A Libyan girl who was having breakfast in a nearby house was also hurt, Deputy Prime Minister Awad al-Barassi said on his official Facebook page.

Hollande sent French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to Tripoli to assess the situation and bring home the two wounded French guards.

French institutions in Tripoli, including schools and cultural centers, were ordered to suspend their activities immediately.

The attack presented the Libyan government with hard choices: either act to disband the powerful militias and risk even more widespread lawlessness, or tolerate the occasional violent backlash because the armed groups provide a measure of security.

Libyan leaders consider some of the militias to be “legitimate” forces while others such as Ansar al-Shariah are seen as outlaws.

However, both types of militias often act in the total absence of state control and oversight, making their own arrests, interrogating and taking confessions from detainees, and running their own prisons. At the same time, the government provides the militants with steady and even lavish salaries and rewards.

The bombing will also increase pressure already on army chief Maj. Gen. Youssef al-Mangoush, who is blamed for Libya’s failure to take any concrete steps to build its military and stop the expansion of the militias.

French officials have expressed concerns about the possibility of greater instability in Libya, where they believe at least some rebel fighters from Mali fled following Paris’ military intervention.

Last week, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, threatened to seek revenge against all countries taking part in the war in Mali, warning that no one who participated will be safe.

It called on “all Muslims to target France and its interests and subjects inside and outside France until it withdraws the last soldier from the land of the Muslims and lifts its support of rulers of the region.” That threat came as part of a question-and- answer session on AQIM’s new Twitter account.