A Libyan Islamist militia commander accused of leading the Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi said Thursday he was there that night, but denied he was involved in the attack.
Ahmed Abu Khattala, who calls himself as a founder and commander of the Abu Obaida Bin Jarrah militia, told the Associated Press by telephone that he went to the consulate to rescue men that he had been told were trapped inside.
Abu Khattala said that, contrary to reports, he had not been questioned by Libyan authorities, was not in hiding, and was going about his business as a construction contractor.
U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died in the attack. It has become an issue in the U.S. election season, with Republicans accusing the Obama administration of being slow to label the assault an act of terrorism early on, and slow to strike back at those responsible.
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In an in-person interview, Abu Khattala told Reuters he had only heard he was a suspect from the media and was surprised that officials had told journalists he was at large.
"These reports say that no one knows where I am and that I am hiding," he said. "But here I am in the open, sitting in a hotel with you. I'm even going to pick up my sister's kids from school soon."
"I arrived at the street parallel to the consulate and waited for other brigade leaders to show me the way to the buildings," he said. "I arrived at the scene just like the others did -- to see what was happening."
He told Reuters that after he arrived at the consulate, he began to help direct traffic with other militia leaders.
"People were crashing into each other because of the chaos and there was sporadic shooting," he said.
Abu Khattala said he called the commanders of Benghazi's security forces -- the February 17 brigade and the Supreme Security Committee -- and told them to get their cars and people away from the consulate to avoid clashes.
"Soon after I made my calls, one of the guards told me that four men were detained in a building inside the compound who had been shooting at the demonstrators," he said.
"By the time I arrived at the building the men had already escaped. At that point I left the scene and didn't return."
A Libyan official close to the investigation told Reuters that a photograph was taken of Abu Khattala at the consulate at the time of the attack but there was not enough evidence to arrest him.
"There were many people there from Ansar al-Shariah, from other brigades and from the general public," the official, who refused to be named, said, referring to the hardline militia that has been blamed for the attack. "Just because someone is there doesn't mean they were behind it."
Abu Khattala denied being a leader of Ansar al-Shariah, but said he was friendly with the group and knew its members well.
A U.S. official said there may be more than person taking a lead role in the group.
"Ansar al-Shariah is a factionalized militant group without one home address," the official told Reuters. "There may be several military commanders playing a role in its activities."