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US Secretary of State Clinton testifies on Libya attack

The outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has faced questions about security failures that led to the deaths of four Americans at the US mission in Benghazi. Clinton has defended her handling of the incident.

Clinton testified to Congress Wednesday about the assault that killed the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans, on September 11, 2012. The incident was the first since 1988 that resulted in the death of a US ambassador.

Washington officials suspect that militants linked to al Qaeda were behind the attack.

Clinton's testimony came in the face of Republican allegations that in the midst of a presidential campaign, the Obama administration ignored a deteriorating security situation in Libya by linking the attack to the fallout from an anti-Muslim video, which defamed the Prophet Mohammad.

"It's been a cover-up from the beginning," said the powerful Senator John McCain, on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Clinton told Congress she directed the US response following the Benghazi attack and took responsibility for it, but also warned of rising militancy following the Arab Spring.

"Benghazi didn't happen in a vacuum," she told the hearing.

"The Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region."

The secretary of state became emotional as she recounted the arrival back home of the bodies of the fallen diplomats.

"I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, and the wives left alone to raise their children," said Clinton, choking back a sob.

She also warned of a knee-jerk reaction from US diplomacy to the incident.

"We cannot afford to retreat now. When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. Extremism takes root, our interests suffer and our security at home is threatened," said Clinton.

Clinton's future

Clinton's testimony comes after a period of ill-health, forcing her to postpone her appearance. She was initially due to testify last month after an inquiry labeled security at the Benghazi outpost as "grossly inadequate," for failing to protect staff.

The incident could cast a shadow on Clinton's four-year tenure as secretary of state, particularly if she decides to run for president in 2016, a possibility she has played down despite continuing rumors.

Clinton, a former US first lady and New York senator, is due to stand down in the coming days to make way for her successor, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.

jr/dr (Reuters, AFP, AP)