FILE - In this Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013 file photo, Syrian man carries his sister who was wounded in a government airstrike hit the neighborhood of Ansari, in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Abdullah al-Yassin, File)
WASHINGTON (AP) — The State Department on Friday ordered nonessential U.S. diplomats to leave Lebanon due to security concerns as the Obama administration and Congress debate military strikes on neighboring Syria.
In a new travel warning for Lebanon, the department said it had instructed nonessential staffers to leave Beirut and urged private American citizens to depart Lebanon.
The step had been under consideration since last week when President Barack Obama said he was contemplating military action against the Syrian government for its alleged chemical weapons attack last month that the administration said killed more than 1,400 people near Damascus.
"The potential in Lebanon for a spontaneous upsurge in violence remains," the department said.
"Lebanese government authorities are not able to guarantee protection for citizens or visitors to the country should violence erupt suddenly. Access to borders, airports, roads, and seaports can be interrupted with little or no warning," the statement said. "Public demonstrations occur frequently with little warning and have the potential to become violent. Family, neighborhood, or sectarian disputes often escalate quickly and can lead to gunfire or other violence with little or no warning.
"The ability of U.S. government personnel to reach travelers or provide emergency services may be severely limited," the department cautioned.
Deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said, "We will continue to assess the situation and to adjust our security posture accordingly.":
The U.S. closed 19 embassies and consulates across Africa and the Middle East last month for more than a week after a terrorist threat. Hezbollah, an Assad ally that has sent fighters into Syria, is based in Lebanon.
The department also said that Hezbollah "maintains a strong presence in parts of the southern suburbs of Beirut, portions of the Bekaa Valley and areas in South Lebanon."
"The situation remains tense, and sporadic violence involving Hezbollah or other extremist or criminal organizations remains a possibility in many areas of the country," it said.
"The U.S. Embassy advises U.S. citizens that clashes between Lebanese authorities and criminal elements have also recently occurred in other areas of the Bekaa and border regions," the statement said.
In a separate advisory for Turkey, the department advocated a policy of voluntary withdrawal of people, saying that its diplomatic outpost in Adana "has been authorized to draw down its non-emergency staff and family members because of threats against U.S. government facilities and personnel." The department said it was recommending that U.S. citizens "defer non-essential travel" to southeastern Turkey.
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