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The U.S. military has moved Marines from a newly formed crisis-response force to Italy in anticipation that it could be needed to respond to growing unrest in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, Pentagon officials said.
The personnel are with Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response, a new unit that includes a reinforced infantry company, logistical support and six MV-22B Ospreys. It was designed to respond quickly to crises that emerge in Africa following the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The Marines deployed to Morón Air Base in Spain late last month, but a portion of them have been moved to Sicily, where it could “quickly augment security at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, if required,” said Air Force Maj. Robert Firman, a Defense Department spokesman.”
“If sent to Libya, these Marines are only intended to augment the embassy’s physical security temporarily,” Firman said. “The DOD and Department of State will closely coordinate to assess the situation and ensure these additional Marines are in Libya only as long as required.”
The entire new crisis-response force includes about 550 Marines, Commandant Gen. Jim Amos told the Senate last month during testimony. Firman declined to comment on how many of them are now in Italy, but Italian officials said Wednesday that about 200 Marines and two aircraft had been sent to Naval Air Station Sigonella, in Sicily, according to the AFP news service.
It is unclear if additional forces, including a Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team, could be called on. That force also frequently deploys in times of crisis, reinforcing embassies and evacuating State Department personnel when necessary.
The move was made as the fledgling Libyan government faces an uprising from militias led by people said to be angry about a new law that excludes officials who served under former dictator Moammar Gadhafi from holding public office. In one of the largest acts of violence, a car bomb exploded Monday near a hospital in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, killing at least 10 people. Some of the militias are affiliated with the terrorist group Al Qaeda.
U.S. embassies are frequently guarded by detachments of Marine embassy security guards, but not always. In the case of Tripoli, there is currently no permanent detachment of Marine embassy guards, but a platoon of Marines from another unit, SPMAGTF-Africa, has stood guard there this year in similar fashion to how they’d man posts in Afghanistan.
Lt. Col. Daniel Whisnant, commanding officer of SPMAGTF-Africa, told Marine Corps Times last month that his Marines in Tripoli were closely tracking the growing unrest there.
“We are an external security force,” he said at the time. “We are outward looking. If there was any external threat, we would address that, with the embassy’s concurrence.”
The rest of SPMAGTF-Africa focuses primarily on training missions across Africa, frequently deploying in teams of 15 to 20 to nations like Burundi, Senegal and Uganda to prepare their militaries for future threats.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.