By Andrew Quinn and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON, Sept 12 (Reuters) - Security personnel were separated from the U.S. ambassador to Libya during the attack in which he was killed, U.S. officials said on Wednesday, describing a chaotic scene of smoke, gunfire and confusion as the American consulate in Benghazi came under assault.
The officials said the attack began at roughly 10 p.m. local time on Tuesday, with U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, information technology specialist Sean Smith and one security officer trapped under fire in the burning consulate building.
"They became separated from each other due to the heavy dark smoke while they were trying to evacuate the burning building," one senior official said, who spoke on condition of anonymity and stressed that it was a preliminary version of events.
The security officer made it outside, and returned with help to search for the missing U.S. diplomatic personnel.
"At that time, they found Sean. He was already dead. And they pulled him from the building. They were unable, however, to locate Chris (Stevens), before they were driven from the building, due to the heavy fire and smoke and the continuing small arms fire," the official said.
During the next several hours, U.S. and Libyan security forces exchanged repeated gunfire with the attackers, whom they identified as Libyan extremists.
The description of events at the consulate, while preliminary, appeared to raise questions about security preparations and procedures.
A second U.S. official said there were no U.S. military personnel at the mission in Benghazi at the time of the attack.
Questioned about the consulate's security, the officials said the consulate compound was guarded by both Libyan security and a "robust" force of U.S. security officers, and that a regular security review before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had recently been completed.
"And at that point, there was no information and there were no threat streams to indicate that we were insufficiently postured," the first U.S. official said.
U.S. and Libyan security forces eventually were able to secure the consulate complex, and shepherd several dozen consular staff to a nearby safe haven. But the fate of the 52-year-old ambassador remained unclear.
"At some point in all of this, and frankly we do not know when, we believe that Ambassador Stevens got out of the building and was taken to a hospital in Benghazi. We do not have any information on what his condition was at that time," the first official said.
Stevens' body was later returned to U.S. custody at Benghazi airport, where it was evacuated along with the rest of the personnel to Tripoli, the U.S. official said.
Two other embassy personnel were also killed in the attack, but have not been identified pending notification of their families, the official said. Three more people were wounded.
The official was unable to confirm media reports that unidentified Libyans had found Stevens and brought him to the hospital.
"Obviously he had to get there somehow. No Americans were responsible for that. But again I'm not in a position to confirm, because we frankly don't know," the official said.
The official declined to discuss specifics of Stevens' security detail, but defended their efforts.
"I think in the accounting that I gave I made clear that security personnel were endeavoring to get him out of the building when they got separated by the incredibly thick smoke and fire," the official said.
"They then turned right back around, got more help and went right back to look for him. So this was realty quite a heroic effort."
Following the attack, the United States evacuated all its personnel from Benghazi to the Libyan capital and has reduced the staff at its embassy in Tripoli to unspecified "emergency" levels, the official said.
In response to the crisis, the Pentagon dispatched a team of about 50 members of the Marine fleet anti-terrorist security team, who were on the ground at the embassy in Tripoli.
The first official said that in addition to official Libyan security, a local militia friendly to U.S. interests had also joined the effort to defend the consulate.
The officials declined to speculate on whether al Qaeda might be involved, saying evidence from the attack was still under review.
BEFORE YOU GO
09/15/2012 10:05 PM EDT
Egypt PM: Some Cairo Protesters Paid To Protest
Egypt's Prime Minister Hesham Kandil told CNN that some people involved in the recent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo were paid to protest. He also said that some were there on their own accord, though.
For more on his comments, click here.
09/15/2012 8:16 PM EDT
Libya President: 'Foreigners' Involved In Attack
Both Libyans and "foreigners" carried out the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, said Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf.
"We have assumptions and we have some information, and all that information we have now leads to the same direction about the perpetrators, the criminals," he told NBC.
For more on Magariaf's comments, click here.
09/15/2012 7:58 PM EDT
More Details Of Libya Attack Emerge
A local security official walked CNN through the horrific attacks in Libya that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens dead. Read the report here.
09/15/2012 7:32 PM EDT
Senior Libya Official Tells CNN: No Evidence That Attack Was Pre-Planned
@ JomanaCNN :
One senior official just told me they have no evidence yet to support President's statements that attack was pre-planned. #Libya
09/15/2012 7:24 PM EDT
U.S. Issues Warnings For Sudan, Tunisia
From the AP:
WASHINGTON — The State Department on Saturday ordered the departure of all family members and non-essential U.S. government personnel from posts in Sudan and Tunisia and is issuing travel warnings to American citizens in the two countries due to security concerns over anti-American violence.
"Given the security situation in Tunis and Khartoum, the State Department has ordered the departure of all family members and non-emergency personnel from both posts, and issued parallel travel warnings to American citizens," said Victoria Nuland, a department spokeswoman.
To read more, click here.
09/15/2012 7:19 PM EDT
Nakoula Basseley Nakoula
In this image from video provided by CBS2-KCAL9, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the man behind the anti-Muslim movie that has inflamed the Middle East, is escorted by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies from his home, early Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, in Cerritos, Calif. Nakoula, 55, was interviewed by federal probation officers at a Los Angeles sheriff's station but was not arrested or detained, authorities said early Saturday. (AP Photo/CBS2-KCAL9)
09/15/2012 5:10 PM EDT
Image Purportedly Shows Camp Bastion
This image from AP video obtained from the SITE Intel Group posted by al-Emarah Jihadi Studio, an Afghan Taliban media unit who released two clips on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, purports to show smoke rising over Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, after what the Taliban media unit says is an attack at the base. (AP Photo/SITE Intelligence Group)
09/15/2012 5:03 PM EDT
Far-Right Group Trying To Screen Anti-Islam Film
According to an AFP report, a far-right group in Germany wants to screen 'Innocence of Muslims,' the film that sparked protests around the world, in Berlin.
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich told Der Spiegel he would use every legal means at his disposal to stop them.
“Such groups and organizations only want to provoke Germany’s Muslims,” he said, accusing them of recklessly pouring oil on the fire.
Read the full story here.
09/15/2012 4:36 PM EDT
Libyan President Meets U.S. Consulate Guard
President Mohammed el-Megarif, fourth right, meets an unidentified Libyan guard of the U.S. Consulate who was wounded following the deadly attack on September 11, 2012, at Benghazi Medical Center in Benghazi, Libya, Friday, Sept. 14, 2012. (AP Photo)
09/15/2012 4:30 PM EDT
Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority on Saturday condemned the attacks on U.S. embassies as un-Islamic, according to a report by Reuters.
"It is forbidden to punish the innocent for the wicked crimes of the guilty, or to attack those who have been granted protection of their lives and property, or to expose public buildings to fire or destruction," he said in a speech carried by state news agency SPA.
Read the full report here.