Dozens of armed men invaded the US consulate in Benghazi last month setting it on fire and hunting down staff, US officials said Tuesday in a dramatic, detailed account of the deadly assault in Libya.
There had been no prior intelligence to raise the alarm that the attack was in the works and in the hours before the streets outside the compound had been calm, they said. That contradicted initial reports by US officials that there had been a protest against an inflammatory anti-Islam film.
"There was no actionable intelligence of any planned or imminent attack," one top State Department official said, giving a detailed description and timeline of the massive attack on the diplomatic compound and a nearby annex.
Speaking ahead of Wednesday's first public congressional hearing into alleged security failures at the consulate, the official said it was difficult to say with hindsight what kind of security would have been needed to repel such an attack.
"The lethality and the number of armed people is unprecedented. There have been no attacks like that in Libya, Tripoli or Benghazi or elsewhere in the time that we have been there," the official told reporters.
"It would be very, very hard to find a precedent for an attack like that in recent diplomatic history."
On a conference call with reporters, two State Department officials said the ferocious attack in eastern Benghazi erupted around 9:40 pm local time on September 11 just after the ambassador, Chris Stevens, had gone to bed.
Stevens and three other US diplomatic staff died when dozens of men wielding heavy arms first overran the compound, and later waged a sustained attack on an annex about two kilometers (a mile) away.
Gunfire and explosions first erupted shattering the calm outside the compound, and agents manning security cameras saw "a large number of armed men flowing into the compound," said one of the officials.
The armed attackers doused the outside of one of the buildings with diesel, setting it alight and then invaded the main residence, pouring fuel over furniture and starting a blaze, which let off plumes of thick, choking smoke.
An armed American security agent alerted Stevens, and together with US information manager Sean Smith they took refuge in a fortified safe haven, equipped with medical supplies and water, in a closet on the bedroom floor of of the main residence in the compound.
But the three men soon found it hard to breathe and after moving to a bathroom with a grilled window, decided they had to make a break for it despite tracer fire and shells raining around the compound inside.
In their bid to escape, the three were separated. Smith died in the blaze, and his body was found during desperate search attempts by US security while Stevens somehow was taken to a hospital and his body later returned to US diplomatic staff that night.© ANP/AFP