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Seoul mulls closing embassy in Libya

South Korea is considering closing its embassy and withdrawing its staff from Libya amid security concerns in the aftermath of Sunday’s deadly attack on the facility, officials said Monday.

A group of armed gunmen fired 40 shots from a machine gun while driving past the embassy early on Sunday, killing two Libyan guards and wounding another. The Tripoli chapter of the Islamic State militant group claimed responsibility via Twitter, saying it had “removed” two guards.

The Foreign Ministry convened an intra-agency meeting to assess the situation in the region hit by the rise of IS, while exploring ways to ensure the safety of its staff and some 35 Koreans remaining in the conflict-laden country. Chaired by Lee Key-cheol, ambassador for overseas Koreans and consular affairs, the session was attended by director-general-level officials from Cheong Wa Dae, the National Intelligence Service, police and the defense and other four ministries.

The embassy was relocated to Tunisia last July due to soaring security concerns. Two diplomats have since been shuttling between the two countries for alternate two-week stints to continue political affairs and consular services, aided by local administrative officers.

The focal point will be whether the incident was explicitly directed at the embassy, officials say.

News reports suggested that the assailants aimed at the guards given differences in the patterns of the organization’s previous attacks on other embassies and facilities. Unlike the past, they did not attempt to break in and open fire on those inside the building.

Yonhap News quoted an unnamed source as saying that a police probe was underway, as signs had emerged that the officers were “implicated in some argument.”

“We held a meeting Sunday led by a vice foreign minister to look into the possibility for a complete transfer of the embassy to Tunisia and decided to individually contact all remaining citizens in Libya to recommend to pull out,” Lee said at the outset of the session.

“Today we’ve gathered to examine whether the IS did indeed carry out the attack and its background, and share views on future measures to protect our citizens there.”

The Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning the attack, saying “no attack or violence against a foreign diplomatic mission can be justified.”

The U.S. and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also displayed strong condemnation and offered condolences to the families of the victims.

“The ongoing escalation of violence in Libya against civilians and its critical institutions further widens a conflict that is fundamentally political, which in turn makes Libya and its citizens vulnerable to extremist actors,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said in a statement.

Safety concerns persist in Libya as the battle drags out between rival governments and strong militias jockeying for control following the 2011 death of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Currently, only 18 countries maintain diplomatic missions there, 10 of which are African nations. Alongside Turkey and Ukraine, six Asian states continue to operate missions, including North Korea, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Bangladesh.

Seoul has also imposed a travel ban in the North African country, as well as in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia.

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)
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