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Terrorism threat leads U.S. to close some embassies this weekend

WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than 20 U.S. embassies and other facilities in the Mideast, North Africa and South Asia will be closed this weekend amid evidence that terrorists affiliated with al-Qaida were planning attacks, according to U.S. officials familiar with intelligence on the risks.

“The Department of State has instructed certain U.S. embassies and consulates to remain closed or to suspend operations on Sunday” as a “precautionary” step, department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday. Harf didn’t say which facilities would be shut, how many or where they are, and she didn’t describe the security issues.

A State Department official, who like other officials asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, said that the order affects embassies and consulates normally open on Sundays. It includes facilities in predominantly Muslim countries and also in Israel, where workweeks include Sundays, said an official in another U.S. agency, who called the intelligence credible but not ironclad.

There’s always a chance, this official said, that the information on the planned attacks is intentionally misleading in an attempt to divert attention and security from the location, timing or nature of an actual plot.

“It’s my understanding that it is al Qaida-linked, all right, and the threat emanates in the Middle East and in Central Asia,” said Rep. Ed Royce of California, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on CNN’s “New Day” program.

The State Department issued a similar warning of possible attacks on or about Sept. 11, 2012. Harf also pointed reporters to a “Worldwide Caution” the department issued in February of this year warning U.S. citizens that “current information suggests that al-Qaida, its affiliated organizations, and other terrorist organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in multiple regions.”

That caution said that security threat levels remain high in Yemen and that Iraq is “dangerous and unpredictable.” It also said that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is active in Algeria, has attacked Westerners near the borders with Mali and Libya, and has claimed responsibility for kidnapping and killing of Westerners throughout the region.

The State Department pledged to increase security at embassies and consulates after the attack on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, led to the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The Central Intelligence Agency said it had repeatedly warned the State Department of terrorist threats in Benghazi before the attack, according to emails released later by the White House.

The announcement that embassies will be closed this weekend came after terrorist groups freed prisoners in several countries.

On July 22, hundreds of prisoners, including senior al-Qaida figures, escaped from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. On July 27, more than 1,000 detainees escaped from detention in Benghazi. A July 30 Taliban attack on a prison facility in northwest Pakistan freed more than 250 prisoners.

Also, newly discovered 2011 papers suggest that the terrorist group considered taking hostages in an effort to stop strikes by unmanned U.S. aircraft.

Documents purportedly from al-Qaida fighters in Mali and obtained by the Associated Press outline a strategy of kidnapping “in exchange for the drone strategy.”

Kidnappings would “bring back the pressure of the American public opinion in a more active way” against drones, according to the papers, which the New York-based news service translated from Arabic. The document is focused on Yemen.

In Pakistan, where such U.S. strikes aimed at terrorists have been an irritant to relations, Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that drone attacks may end soon.

“I think the program will end, as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it,” Kerry said in an interview broadcast by the PTV network in Pakistan.

“I think the president has a very real timeline, and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon,” Kerry said.

In London, British Foreign Office said it will review safety at its embassies after the U.S. announcement, according to the Telegraph newspaper.

With assistance from John Walcott in Washington and Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Islamabad.

© 2013, Bloomberg News

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