It was, by all appearances, a jihadists’ pool party — staged at an abandoned American diplomatic compound in the Libyan capital.
In video footage posted online Sunday, a group of laughing, whooping men identified as members of an Islamist-linked group — some in black paramilitary-appearing outfits, some in summertime civilian wear — clowned, mugged for the camera and did swan dives off a second-floor balcony into a swimming pool said to be in an annex of the embassy in Tripoli, which was evacuated last month amid heavy fighting.
The images were emblematic of Libya in free fall, with the oil-rich North African nation spiraling into all-out civil war more than three years after the toppling of longtime dictator Moammar Kadafi. And the spectacle of a breached diplomatic compound — even one empty of any American personnel — stirred memories of the Benghazi attack nearly two years ago that killed the then-ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens.
The current U.S. ambassador to Libya, Deborah Jones, who has been overseeing American diplomatic activity from Malta, said on Twitter that the video footage appeared to have been shot in a residential compound at the embassy, from which staff members were evacuated more than a month ago as fierce clashes were taking place in Tripoli.
A commander for an Islamist faction called Libyan Dawn told Associated Press on Sunday that the militia had “secured” the residential annex. Witnesses cited by the news agency said the compound did not appear to have been ransacked or looted, though some windows were broken, and it quoted the commander as urging foreign envoys to return.
It is not clear when the video was shot.
The American diplomatic staff was spirited out of Tripoli after fighting — centered on the capital’s now-wrecked international airport — came too close to the embassy grounds. In what was described as an orderly departure, the staffers were taken overland to neighboring Tunisia on July 26, under the escort of U.S. Marines backed by air power and naval vessels offshore.
The State Department said at the time that the shutdown of the U.S. Embassy was a suspension of an American diplomatic presence rather than an end. Most other diplomatic installations in Tripoli, those of neighboring Arab countries as well as Western nations, have also been shuttered.
The video footage, in which the camera at times tilts crazily, shows men milling poolside in front of a stately looking whitewashed building with black wrought-iron railings. Gleeful shouts ring out as some leap fully clothed into the blue but slightly cloudy water. At one point, the cameraman says, in Arabic: “This is the U.S. Embassy!”
Libyan armed groups, once allied in the fight against Kadafi, turned on one another after toppling and killing him in 2011. In June of this year, the Islamists suffered harsh setbacks in parliamentary elections, and the conflict between them and other nationalist and tribal militias escalated in recent months into full-scale armed conflict.
The violent unrest has left Libya in a state of de facto partition. Tripoli is under control of Libyan Dawn, while the elected government set up operations in the eastern city of Tobruk.
The fighting has taken on the character of a regional proxy war. Libyan Dawn is supported by the Gulf emirate of Qatar, which has also supported Islamist groups like Hamas and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. After Libyan Dawn seized control of Tripoli, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates last week carried out airstrikes against its positions.
Times staff writer King reported from Cairo and special correspondent Bulos from Amman, Jordan.
Follow @laurakingLAT on Twitter for news from the Middle EastCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Aug. 31, 10:13 a.m.: This post has been updated throughout with details from video, background.
This article was originally posted at 8:15 a.m.