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Britain warns of 'specific' threat in Benghazi

Libyan security members gather outside the British consulate compound in Benghazi, on June 11, 2012
Libyan security members gather outside the British consulate compound in Benghazi, on June 11, 2012. Britain's Foreign Office has urged its nationals to leave the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi immediately, saying it had become aware of a "specific and i

Britain urged its nationals on Thursday to leave Benghazi immediately because of a "specific and imminent threat to Westerners" in the east Libyan city, sparking an angry response from Libya's government.

The alert came just hours after Prime Minister David Cameron warned that last week's deadly attack on a gas complex in Algeria was only one part of what would be a "long struggle against murderous terrorists" around the world.

"We are now aware of a specific and imminent threat to Westerners in Benghazi, and urge any British nationals who remain there against our advice to leave immediately," the Foreign Office said in a statement.

"We cannot comment further on the nature of the threat at this time."

But Libya's deputy interior minister, Abdullah Massoud, expressed his "astonishment" at the tone of the British statement and said his country would be demanding an explanation from London.

"We acknowledge that there are security problems in Benghazi and that there have been for several months, but there is no new intelligence that could justify this reaction from London," the minister said.

"On the contrary. We are now in the process of establishing our authority in the east and in all of Libya, and the security forces are organising themselves little by little and are more and more visible on the ground."

The alert came a day after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned of the challenge posed by rising militancy following the Arab Spring, as she testified before Congress about September's bloody attack on the US mission in Benghazi.

The US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other people were killed when dozens of heavily-armed Al-Qaeda-linked militants overran the compound and a nearby CIA-run annex.

At the time, Britain updated its official advice to warn against all travel to Benghazi and most of Libya, with the exception of Tripoli and a few other towns.

Fears over security in Benghazi were reinforced earlier this month when the Italian consul was shot at in his car. He escaped unhurt but Italy pulled its staff out of the country.

Last week's attack on a remote gas complex in Algeria, in which at least 37 foreign hostages and one Algerian hostage were killed, has also sparked fresh concerns about rising Islamist extremism across north Africa.

In a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Cameron warned that tackling terrorism in that region and elsewhere required playing the long game.

"I believe we are in the midst of a long struggle against murderous terrorists and the poisonous ideology that supports them," he said, just hours before the Foreign Office issued its warning.

"As we have successfully put pressure on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so Al-Qaeda franchises have been growing for years in Yemen, Somalia and parts of North Africa -- places that have suffered hideously through hostage-taking, terrorism and crime.

"To defeat this menace, we've got to be tough, intelligent and patient," he said, adding that he would make that argument to the Group of Eight (G8) rich nations.

Cameron said that in some cases military action was the right option, praising the ongoing French operation against Islamist rebels in Mali, for which Britain is providing logistical and surveillance support.

"But we need to combine a tough security response with an intelligent political response," he said.

"We need to address the poisonous narrative these terrorists feed on, close down the ungoverned space in which they thrive and deal with the grievances they use to garner support."

The international community should do everything it could to support the "building blocks of democracy" such as the rule of law and a free media, he said, adding: "The Arab Spring remains part of the solution, not part of the problem."