WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. and European officials are downplaying the risk to Americans posed by the latest threats from Islamic militants who have vowed to target Westerners in Benghazi, Libya.
One reason is that the alleged threats are explicitly directed against European nationals, said U.S. and European sources familiar with the warnings issued on Thursday by at least three European governments.
Also, few if any U.S. citizens now are believed to be in Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city where U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in an attack by militants on September 11, 2012.
Britain's Foreign Office on Thursday said it was aware of a "specific and imminent" threat to Westerners in Benghazi and urged British nationals to evacuate.
Subsequently, authorities in Germany and the Netherlands issued similar warnings urging their citizens to leave Benghazi and avoid eastern Libya.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he was unaware of any request for U.S. assistance in getting people out of Benghazi, even as he acknowledged that the situation there was "very dangerous."
"As far as I know, we have not been asked to participate in moving any people out of Benghazi," Panetta told a Pentagon news conference.
The source familiar with the warning said it was based on intelligence that British authorities collected earlier this week and then shared with allies, including the U.S. and European governments.
A European national security official said that his understanding was the threats were a reaction to the French military operation against militants in Mali and possibly to the deadly Algerian government counterattack on militants who took hostages at a gas facility in the remote Algerian desert.
The official said that after the French operation in Mali began, the brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the leader of al Qaeda's central organization, condemned the French intervention in Mali and declared it to be the religious duty of Muslims to "repel it."
Mohammed al-Zawahiri also said in an interview with the Euronews website: "France lit the fire; it started the war, and if this continues, the first to burn will be Western people."
European and U.S. security officials said Benghazi was still regarded as a high-threat environment for both Americans and Europeans. But the officials said some Westerners remained in the city even though their governments believed this was not a wise thing to do.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Eric Beech)
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