TRIPOLI- A car bomb in Tripoli wounded two French guards at France's embassy in Libya on Tuesday, bringing new violence to the capital, which has not seen attacks on diplomats like that which killed the US ambassador in Benghazi last year.
Since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled by Western-backed rebels in late 2011, Tripoli and the rest of the sprawling desert state have been awash with weapons and roving armed bands but violence in the city has not targeted diplomats before in the way Western envoys have been shot at and bombed in the east of the country.
"This is an attack that targets not only France but all countries that fight against terrorist groups," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in Paris before flying out to see for himself the damage to the embassy. One of the two wounded French guards required emergency surgery in Tripoli, he added.
Security would be stepped up across a region where France has taken a leading role of late, first in pushing for a NATO air campaign to defend the Benghazi-based rebels from Gaddafi's forces, and most recently mounting its own assault in its former colony of Mali against Islamist insurgents who have profited from arms and fighters coming over the Sahara border from Libya.
President Francois Hollande said: "France expects the Libyan authorities to shed light on this unacceptable act so that the perpetrators are identified and brought to justice."
Libya's government, struggling to exert its authority, said it was a "terrorist act" aimed at destabilizing their country and ministers said they would work with French investigators.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility in the hours after the early morning blast, which caused extensive damage, but al-Qaida's north African arm, AQIM, threatened retaliation for the French intervention in Mali as recently as last week.
Westerners in the region have been on particular alert since January's bloody mass hostage-taking at the In Amenas natural gas plant in Algeria, close to the Libyan and Malian frontiers, during which militants demanded Paris halt operations in Mali.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said France had not received any specific threat against the Tripoli embassy but it had been aware of a generally increased risk: "There was no specific threat against our interests, just a general worsening situation in the region," he said, adding that the embassy was now out of action and staff would move elsewhere.
He said France had asked Libyan authorities to strengthen security around French institutions which were now all closed, including a cultural centre and a school.
"This is a very worrying sign for the government," one Western diplomat said. "It will be a further deterrent for companies who have so far been reluctant to come to Libya."
In the chaos following Gaddafi's overthrow and death, there have been attacks on diplomats, notably in Benghazi in the east.
In September, the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed at Washington's consulate in a city that is the hub for the lucrative oil industry. U.S. officials say militants with ties to al Qaeda were mostly likely involved in that attack but no group has credibly claimed responsibility.
British, United Nations and Red Cross missions in eastern Libya have also been the targets of violence.
Most foreign embassy staff and international aid workers have strict security in Tripoli and Benghazi remains off-limits to many foreigners. Libya has promised a special force to protect diplomats but so far only a few additional police cars can be seen outside embassies in the capital.
People living near the French embassy compound, in Tripoli's Hay Andalus area, close to the Mediterranean seafront, said they heard two blasts around 7 a.m. (0500 GMT).
Tripoli police chief Mohammed Sharif said "an explosive device was planted in a car parked outside the embassy".
A large chunk of the wall around the compound collapsed and one corner of the embassy building had caved in. Office cabinets lay scattered on the ground outside and water from a burst pipe ran down the street. Residents pointed to jagged metal fragments which they said came from a car that had exploded.
One neighbour said his young daughter was taken to hospital after she was hit by a falling piece of masonry at home.
The Libyan army cordoned off the compound as dozens gathered outside. An embassy employee arrived at the scene and burst into tears when she saw the destruction. She was allowed inside to join colleagues and French security staff.
"I was in my house sleeping, when I was woken up by a long explosion. I went to my front door and found that it had blasted out," said Osama al-Alam, who lives next door to the embassy.
"I went into the street and saw smoke everywhere. We heard shooting and went inside the house."
Two cars outside the embassy were burnt out, others damaged. A palm tree in one front garden had fallen onto a roof.
"I think there were two blasts, the first was very loud and then there was a smaller one," another witness said. "There was some black smoke at first, and then it turned white."
Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdelaziz condemned "a terrorist act" and announced the formation of a French-Libyan investigation team to probe the incident, state media said.
Deputy Prime Minister Awad al-Barasi, as well as the interior and justice ministers, visited the scene.
"We are in a critical stage and there are some who want to destabilise Libya," Barasi said. "This will not stop us from moving forward even though it is painful to see the damage."
AQIM - Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb - said on Friday it would retaliate for France's mission to push Islamist fighters out of the large part of northern Mali they seized last year.
"God willing, you shall see what will happen," AQIM's spokesman tweeted in response to questions on whether it planned future attacks on France. "Repelling France's aggressive assault is an obligation of every Muslim not just al Qaeda."