Canada will re-evaluate the security situation in Libya following an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Wednesday.
Protesters stormed the U.S. consulate Tuesday and set it on fire, reportedly enraged by an American-made amateur film that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad. Four diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed.
Speaking to reporters from India where he's travelling on official business, Baird said Canada is continually evaluating the safety of its staff.
"It's an attack on diplomacy and obviously we continually look at the safety and security environments for Canadian personnel," he said.
"We're obviously not present in Benghazi. But as you would expect we'll re-evaluate the environment, as we regularly do, for our personnel in Tripoli. Obviously, we understood that [the country] wasn't going to go from Moammar Gadhafi to Thomas Jefferson overnight, and we continue to put our hope in the actions to bring civil society and pluralism and democracy to the people of Libya."
Five Canadians staff the embassy in Tripoli, Libya's capital; no diplomats work in Benghazi, the seat of unrest for much of the struggle to overthrow Gadhafi, the country's former leader.
Chris Alexander, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and now the parliamentary secretary to Defence Minister Peter MacKay, said the date of the assault — Sept. 11 — points to a planned attack by al-Qaeda. But it's too soon to know, he said in an interview with Evan Solomon, host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics.
"It's clearly though spoiler behaviour in an attempt to hurt the United States, make the Libyan government look weak, just when they were starting to get their game back, after elections and after some months of relatively successful institution building, by all accounts," Alexander said.
Canada closed its embassy in Iran last Friday, citing security among the reasons. There were five Canadians working at the embassy in Tehran, Iran's capital. They left the country before Baird announced the closure. The Iranian Embassy in Ottawa is also closing, with the 18 diplomats being forced to leave Canada by today.
"We gave five business days for the Iranian diplomats to leave Canada. That's not unheard of," Baird said.
"The embassy in Tehran, from a security perspective, was a concern. It's not set back from the road, it's right on the road. The fencing wasn't as strong as we would normally like and that has been a concern for some time."
Baird and other Canadian officials have also referred to an attack on the British Embassy in Tehran last November. The British cut off relations after protesters stormed and trashed the embassy. The U.S. hasn't had an embassy in Iran since the 1979 revolution that saw its staff taken hostage for more than a year.
Baird says security is a "significant priority" for the Department of Foreign Affairs.
"We have been taking a comprehensive review of this and making strategic investments in various embassies, chancelleries and residences around the world," he said.
"Obviously diplomats don't sign up to be soldiers and their safety and security is a high priority. We've made major strides over the past 10 years of the department to meet these goals. There are areas where there is room for improvement and obviously we are seized with the importance of this."
Libya's chargé d'affaires, the country's top diplomat in Canada, said the Canadian staff in Tripoli are safe because the government is in control of the city. He condemned the attack in Benghazi.
"The Libyan government will present and make all the efforts to make sure stability and security will be restored in Libya. They will also make sure that the rule of law will be applied and that the people who are responsible for this incident will be followed and will be presented to justice," Sulaiman Mohamed said through a translator.
During the revolution last year, many people had access to weapons and still have them now, Mohamed said.
"But the government is making all possible efforts to collect these weapons and to make them in its control," he added.
Sandra McCardell, who until last year was Canada's ambassador to Libya, said in a statement she met Stevens during the revolution while working with the National Transitional Council, which became the country's interim government.
"I can only confirm that Ambassador Stevens was a consummate professional who was dedicated to the region as a whole and Libya in particular. From his experience in the region, he had an appreciation for the complexities of the Middle East, which he had drawn upon in his work following the Arab Spring," McCardell said in a statement to CBC News.
"He worked to improve democracy and freedom, and to support the Libyans' desire for a better life. I was extremely saddened to learn of this tragic news and send my sincere condolences to his family, friends and colleagues during this most difficult time."
A spokesman for the union that represents Canada's diplomats said the loss of his American colleagues is felt across the community.
"These senseless killings underscore the daily dangers which many diplomats face while serving their countries abroad in crisis and conflict zones," said Tim Edwards, president of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers.
"Our thoughts today are with the victims' loved ones, as well as with our friends and colleagues in the American foreign service. This tragic loss is felt deeply by the greater foreign service community."
MacKay called the attack on the consulate a deplorable and shocking act of violence.
"We are always in solidarity with our American allies, all of our allies in times like this," MacKay said. "Canada of course has a vested interest in ensuring that we see a security and a greater sense of stability spread within Libya and we recommit ourselves and dedicate ourselves to that effort."
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