Washington, Sept 13: US suspects that the deadly attack on its mission in Benghazi in Libya could be a well-planned assault by Islamist hardliners rather than a rampage by a frenzied mob, officials said, warning that investigations underway could change the circumstances of the killings.
Still grappling to unravel the facts about the killing of its ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Consulate Staff almost 24 hours after the incident, US officials said the attack was "complex" and "they seem to have used this (protest) as an opportunity". The attackers appeared to have used protest over a controversial film as a pretext to stage a major assault using small arms and rockets to overrun the Consulate, they said.
A senior administration official in a background briefing conceded that they did not have much details about the circumstances leading to the death of the ambassador, but admitted that prior to storming of the Consulate there had been heavy exchange of fire between sections of the protesters and the security personnel guarding the compound.
However, the Chairman of the Congress House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers minced no words in saying that the attack that killed US ambassador and his staff had all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda operation.
"Details may still be fuzzy... but clearly it has all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda operation," the Republican lawmaker told CNN. Tuesday's attack on the American Consulate came amid a wave of protests in Muslim countries against a film made by an Israeli-American director which is deemed offensive to Islam.
US officials on Thursday said that at least three Americans were wounded in the attack that killed the envoy. Following the attack, Washington has ordered evacuation of all its staff in Benghazi to Libyan capital of Tripoli. The final hours of Stevens where still shrouded in mystery after he was trapped in a blazing inferno in the mission. The FBI has now opened an inquiry into the attack and the circumstances leading to death of the four Americans.
The officials were unable to answer the question as to why Stevens' personal security guard left him mid-way the attack and came back again inside the Consulate premises and how his body was found at Benghazi hospital.
Officials said that exact cause of his death would be known only after his autopsy report is received and added that they did not had access to him inside the hospital and received the body of the Ambassador only at the airport. In the background briefing, senior administration officials, gave a timeline of events surrounding the attack, but warned that it may change as the attack is investigated.
"On Tuesday at approximately 10 pm in Libya, the compound where our office is in Benghazi began taking fire from unidentified Libyan extremists... By about 4:15 US time, the attackers gained access to the compound and began firing into the main building, setting it on fire, to which the Libyan guard force and mission security personnel responded."
"At that time, there were three people inside the building: Ambassador Stevens, one of our regional security officers, and Information Management Officer Sean Smith. They became separated from each other due to the heavy, dark smoke while they were trying to evacuate the burning building," the officials said.
"The Regional Security Officer made it outside, and then he and other security personnel returned into the burning building in an attempt to rescue Chris and Sean. At that time, they found Sean. He was already dead, and they pulled him from the building. They were unable, however, to locate Chris before they were driven from the building due to the heavy fire and smoke and the continuing small arms fire," they said.
"At about 4:45 our time here in Washington, US security personnel assigned to the mission annex tried to regain the main building, but that group also took heavy fire and had to return to the mission annex. At about 5:20, US. and Libyan security personnel made another attempt and at that time were able to regain the main building and they were able to secure it. Then, due to continued small arms fire, they evacuated the rest of the personnel and safe havened them in the nearby annex," the officials said.