Ottawa has withdrawn its diplomatic staff from Tripoli and is asking Canadians to leave Libya, becoming the latest nation to temporarily shutter its embassy in the North African country amid increasingly intense fighting that has also prompted some countries to go so far as evacuate their citizens.
Diplomatic staff – a "handful" of people, according to a government source – will work out of the Canadian embassy in Tunisia, a neighbouring country where some U.S. diplomats have been posted since they were evacuated from Tripoli in a dramatic military-supported mission Saturday.
"Due to operational challenges, including the unpredictable security environment in Tripoli, we have authorized the temporary suspension of operations at our office in Tripoli," Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Minister of State for Foreign and Consular Lynne Yelich said in a joint statement Tuesday morning.
A government source said Ottawa made the public aware of the relocation as soon as staff were safely across the border into Tunisia. The statement was issued shortly after 7 a.m. (ET).
Canada's latest travel advisory for Libya, which has been in place since June 1 and was updated with stronger language Tuesday morning, warns against all travel to the country and says nationals "should leave now while commercial means are still available."
Some 350 Canadians are registered with Ottawa as being in Libya. Those who choose to remain there despite the government's advice were urged as of Tuesday to restrict their movements, make sure their travel documents are up-to-date and keep abreast of the latest developments.
"Canadians may have little notice of violent outbreaks and risk being at the wrong place at the wrong time," the travel advisory says. "Canadians should use extreme caution, make their own contingency plans, and maintain security awareness at all times."
Asked whether Ottawa is considering evacuating its citizens from Libya – as Agence France-Presse reported Portugal had already done, for example – Foreign Affairs spokesman Ian Trites reiterated the government has advised Canadians to leave, "noting our limited ability to provide assistance."
Foreign Affairs' statement on Tuesday said Canada's chargé d'affaires, currently Denis Thibault, will work out of the embassy in Tunisia "until appropriate measures are put in place to respond to the changing operational environment."
Embassy staff had already opted to sometimes work out of an undisclosed location depending on the day-to-day security conditions, the government source had said Sunday. Tripoli staff had been continuing to offer limited services, with the visa application centre closed July 21 until further notice.
Tuesday's decision to temporarily relocate staff is based solely on security concerns and has nothing to do with Canada's diplomatic relationship with Libya, a country that has devolved into the deadliest violence since the 2011 war that ousted Moammar Gadhafi. Some 150 people died in Tripoli and the city of Benghazi over the past two weeks, with dozens of civilians killed this past weekend alone.
The violence has prompted other governments, such as the United States and Turkey, to temporarily suspend their operations in Libya as well. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya and the International Committee of the Red Cross also recently pulled their staff out of Tripoli.
The U.S. embassy is said to be in a particularly vulnerable location, and Washington is still reeling from a 2011 attack on the American mission in Benghazi killed ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Asked about the status of Canada's embassy following the U.S. evacuation of staff the day before, a Foreign Affairs spokesman said on Sunday that Ottawa was "constantly reviewing the security situation."
Countries such as France, Germany, Britain, the U.S. and the Netherlands also asked their citizens to leave Libya during the weekend, when a British embassy convoy hit by gunfire amid an attempted hijacking outside Tripoli on Sunday. France went a step further Tuesday, saying it will evacuate its 100 or so nationals from Libya by ship after similar moves by other European nations, a government source told AFP.