TRIPOLI (AFP) – A car bomb attack on France’s embassy in Libya on Tuesday wounded two French guards and caused extensive damage, prompting the French foreign minister to visit and warn “terrorists” will pay.
Laurent Fabius made the remarks in Tripoli after touring the devastated embassy hit only hours earlier in the first attack on a diplomatic mission since militants stormed the US consulate in Benghazi in September.
Fabius, flanked by Libyan counterpart Mohammed Abdel Aziz, said the authorities in the North African country had pledged to track down and punish the “terrorists” behind this “cowardly” act.
Abdel Aziz earlier branded the bombing a “terrorist act” while French President Francois Hollande said Tripoli must act quickly to find the perpetrators of this “unacceptable act” and bring them to justice.
The attack comes with Libya plagued by insecurity following the 2011 ouster of long-time dictator Moamer Kadhafi and with French forces locked in a battle against Islamist extremists in Mali, another North African country.
Security chief Mahmud al-Sherif said the blast occurred when a car parked outside the mission’s front door exploded at 7:10 am (0510 GMT).
Sherif said “this was not a suicide bombing,” adding that “we face several threats and enemies, and it was too early to point to any party in particular”.
The blast knocked down the wall surrounding the property and caused extensive damage to the embassy, with one French employee saying “there’s nothing left of my office”.
It created a deep crater in the street, destroyed two cars parked nearby, damaged two neighbouring villas and blew out the windows of a shop 200 metres (yards) away.
A French source said one guard was seriously wounded and another lightly hurt in the attack on the mission, housed in a two-storey villa in the upmarket Gargaresh area.
Interior Minister Ashur Shwayel said one of the guards had injuries to his back and head and was stable after undergoing surgery.
State news agency Lana added a girl living in the neighbourhood was also hurt.
Jamal Omar, who lives across the street and whose face was slightly injured, said the car must have been parked only minutes before the explosion.
“I was sweeping outside my house, and there wasn’t any car in front of the embassy. The explosion happened less than five minutes after I went back inside.”
After touring the embassy and nearby damaged houses, Fabius said: “We strongly condemn this odious and cowardly attack which was carried out to kill”.
“The terrorists who wanted to attack France and Libya and undermine the friendship between them will pay” for the attack, he said.
Fabius said Libya had pledged to “find and punish the culprits”, adding he himself had instructed French missions in the region to bolster security.
The anti-terrorism branch of the Paris prosecutors’ office opened a probe, and the gendarmerie is sending 10 officers to boost security and study the possibility of moving the embassy.
Libya’s foreign minister declined to speculate on who carried out the attack or what the motive was.
“We strongly condemn this act, which we regard as a terrorist act against a brother nation that supported Libya during the revolution” that ousted Kadhafi, Abdel Aziz told AFP.
“We regret this act and express our solidarity with the French government and people,” he added, announcing that a joint commission had been formed to investigate the attack.
In particular, Shwayel said there were questions about where the embassy’s Libyan guards were when the bomb exploded, as they should have been outside on the street.
The French primary and high schools, both located in the same neighbourhood, closed on Tuesday for an indefinite time, parents said.
Shwayel said security had been stepped up around French interests in Libya, as well as at embassies of other countries.
France, under then president Nicolas Sarkozy, led NATO air raids against Kadhafi’s forces under a UN resolution aimed at protecting civilians.
Since Kadhafi’s fall, Libya has been hit by persistent insecurity, especially around Benghazi where bombings and assassinations have forced many Westerners to leave.
Four Americans, including ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed when heavily armed men overran the Benghazi mission on September 11.
The violence is often blamed on radical Islamists persecuted under Kadhafi who now want to settle old scores, while security remains the prerogative of militias in a number of important areas.
Armed jihadist groups hurt by the French intervention in northern Mali had threatened retaliation by attacking French interests across the world.