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Associated Press
Witness accounts gathered by The Associated Press corroborate the conclusion the consulate attack in Benghazi was a planned militant assault.

Benghazi witnesses describe assault

A planned raid, with film as ruse

– It began around nightfall on Sept. 11 with around 150 bearded gunmen, some wearing the Afghan-style tunics favored by Islamic militants, sealing off the streets leading to the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. They set up roadblocks with pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns, according to witnesses.

The trucks bore the logo of Ansar al-Shariah, a powerful local group of Islamist militants who worked with the municipal government to manage security in Benghazi, the main city in eastern Libya and birthplace of the uprising last year that ousted Moammar Gadhafi after a 42-year dictatorship.

There was no sign of a spontaneous protest against an American-made movie denigrating Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. But a lawyer passing by the scene said he saw the militants gathering around 20 youths from nearby to chant against the film. Within an hour or so, the assault began, guns blazing as the militants blasted into the compound.

One of the consulate’s private Libyan guards said masked militants grabbed him and beat him, one of them calling him “an infidel protecting infidels who insulted the prophet.”

The witness accounts gathered by The Associated Press give a from-the-ground perspective for the sharply partisan debate in the U.S. over the attack that left U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead.

They corroborate the conclusion largely reached by American officials that it was a planned militant assault. But they also suggest the militants may have used the film controversy as a cover for the attack.

The ambiguity has helped fuel the election-time bickering in the U.S. ever since.

The Obama administration has sent out muddled messages whether it was a planned attack or a mob protest that got out of control. A day after the attack, President Obama referred to “acts of terror.” He told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in an interview aired the following Sunday that he believed those involved “were looking to target Americans from the start.”

Within 24 hours of the attack, both the embassy in Tripoli and the CIA station chief sent word to Washington that it was a planned militant attack. Still, days later, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, said the attack began as a spontaneous protest over the film.

Republicans, embroiled in a heated presidential campaign, seized on the confusion. They have accused the Obama administration of being hesitant to call it a “terrorist attack” linked to al-Qaida because that would weaken one of Obama’s key campaign selling points – that under his watch, al-Qaida had been weakened and Osama bin Laden had been killed.

Ansar al-Shariah, the group whose members are suspected in the attack, is made up of militants with an al-Qaida-like ideology, but it is not clear whether it has any true ties to the terror organization.

Made up mainly of veterans of last year’s civil war, it is one of the many powerful, heavily armed militias that operate freely in Libya, while government control remains weak.

Some Benghazi officials have praised Ansar al-Shariah for helping keep order in the city, even as they note its jihadi ideology.

A day after the Benghazi attack, an unidentified Ansar al-Shariah spokesman praised the attack as a popular “uprising” sparked by the anti-Islam film, further propagating the image of a mob attack against the consulate.

Yasser el-Sirri, a former Egyptian militant who runs the Islamic Observation Center in London closely tracking jihadi groups, said the attack “had nothing to do with the film, but it was a coincidence that served the (militants’) purpose.”

He believes attackers may have been inspired by an al-Qaida call to avenge the death of a Libyan jihadist on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

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