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In Libya, fears of oil field attack grow

By Jomana Karadsheh, Salma Abdelaziz and Joe Sterling, CNN
January 24, 2013 -- Updated 2144 GMT (0544 HKT)
  • NEW: Libya 'denies existence of threats,' assures 'the Benghazi security situation is stable'
  • Britain says there's a 'specific and imminent threat to Westerners in Benghazi'
  • U.S. says the potential of violence, kidnappings is 'significant'
  • Threat comes nearly a week after the Algerian gas plant siege ended

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- A threat targeting the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi has allegedly surfaced after last week's bloody hostage crisis in neighboring Algeria.

But while Libya has ratcheted up its protection of Benghazi and its nearby oil fields, its government downplayed the situation on Thursday.

"The Ministry of Interior strongly denies existence of threats against the stabilities and security of the Western citizens and residents who live in Benghazi, and assure that the Benghazi security situation is stable," said a statement from the official Libyan news agency.

"Terrorism has no religion or country," said Jumma Atiga, a high-ranking Libyan politician. "Terrorism can strike anywhere in the world, even ...countries like Britain, aren't immune to terrorism. But to have this announcement that hints at something that doesn't really exist on the ground, is not justified enough, in our opinion."

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But concerns have sparked warnings from foreign entities with people in the North African nation.

Algeria forces try to settle hostage crisis

"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," Britain said Thursday.

"Although there is no specific information pointing to specific, imminent threats against U.S. citizens, the potential for violence and kidnappings targeting Westerners in Benghazi is significant," the U.S. State Department said in a warning for American citizens Thursday.

"The United States continues to advise against all travel to Benghazi. At least two other diplomatic missions have advised their citizens to leave Benghazi immediately."

The deadly siege by jihadis at the remote Algerian gas plant has generated fears that a similar attack could happen in Libya. The militants reportedly attacked the Algerian facility because Algeria permitted France to use its air space to attack militants in Mali.

Opinion: Algeria hostage crisis shows jihadists on rise

Libyan commanders have called in pro-government militias, or "revolutionaries" from the city of Zintan to help protect oil fields.

"As a result of the circumstances Algeria and Niger are going through and the fallout from the Mali crisis, we should be completely ready for any urgent situation that could happen in the area," said Col. Ahmad al-Khabasheh, southern regional commander of Libya's Petroleum Protection Faculty.

The force is tasked with protecting the oil fields on the Tunisian, Algerian and Niger borders, Al-Khabasheh said. Fighters and the security forces are poised inside and outside oil fields.

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The commander said they won't permit any act to affect "the safety and sovereignty of Libya." Guards are using military air support and have formed a special operations room.

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan said Libya has closed borders against an influx of immigrants, along Sudan, Chad, Niger and Algeria in December. But the locations are porous. He said the country won't be used for operations threatening neighbors.

Intelligence suggests that attacks may mirror last week's hostage situation in Algeria.

Security in Benghazi is working on implanting security in the city. and an overnight curfew is being considered, authorities said.

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The International News Safety Institute, a coalition of groups devoted to journalists' safety, said credible sources alerted the group that "terrorist organizations may be planning to attack oil fields in Libya," with attacks threatening to mirror the Algerian hostage-taking.

"The majority of the oil fields are located in eastern Benghazi, where Islamist groups are pushing for separation from Tripoli as early as mid-February. It is not clear whether this current warning is related to the mid-February issue," the INSI said.

The Netherlands is asking citizens not to travel to Benghazi or stay there. Germany asked its citizens to leave Benghazi and the surrounding area, citing knowledge of a specific threat. Air Malta canceled its Thursday flights between Benghazi and Malta.

"We strongly encourage all U.S. citizens to take appropriate precautions as the security situation in Libya is volatile," the U.S. State Department said.

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CNN's Jomana Karadsheh reported from Tripoli. CNN's Joe Sterling and Salma Abdelaziz reported from Atlanta. Mark Morgenstein updated from Atlanta.

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