WASHINGTON — US ambassador Chris Stevens fervently backed the Libyan revolt that overthrew Moamer Kadhafi and the broader Middle East spring, only to be killed in an attack after the strongman's fall.
Stevens, a 52-year-old California native with a smile worthy of a TV commercial, was a veteran diplomat who spoke Arabic and French and spent much of his career in the Middle East, including hot spots such as Jerusalem.
In Libya, he served at the embassy while Kadhafi was in power before working with rebels after the pro-democracy movement spread to the country, and finally returned as ambassador only five months ago.
People who knew him said Stevens did not shy away from venturing beyond the safety of fortified embassy walls. But his security detail could not save him Tuesday, when he was killed in an assault on the US consulate in Benghazi, along with three colleagues. At least three other Americans were wounded.
"He knew the streets, not just the elites. He had an infectious enthusiasm about the extraordinary history playing out across the Middle East, which he witnessed up close," Robin Wright, a former foreign correspondent who knew Stevens and is now at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, posted Wednesday on Facebook.
"He got it. He spoke the language and knew the culture. He never flinched even slightly about the dangers -- whether serving in a country when Kadhafi was in power, or heading the US office in Benghazi during Libya's uprising, or going back to become ambassador during a difficult transition," Wright wrote.
The extremists appear to have used protests over a controversial film deemed offensive to Islam as a pretext to stage an assault involving small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades that lasted several hours, overwhelming the security team at the consulate.
A US official said Stevens became separated from his security detail when the militants stormed a building in the compound, which caught fire in the attack.
He somehow got out and reached a local hospital. His body was later returned to US officials at Benghazi airport. It was unclear how he got to the hospital or when he died.
Stevens had served as envoy to the Libyan rebels from the early weeks after the revolt erupted in February 2011, when NATO aircraft helped rebels overthrow the 40-year-old regime and eventually capture and kill Kadhafi.
"I was thrilled to watch the Libyan people stand up and demand their rights," Stevens said in a video introduction released by the State Department shortly after he was appointed ambassador in May 2012.
"Now I'm excited to return to Libya to continue the great work we've started, building a solid partnership between the United States and Libya to help you, the Libyan people, achieve your goals."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after she first asked Stevens to be the US envoy to the rebel opposition that "he arrived on a cargo ship in the Port of Benghazi and began building our relationship with Libya's revolutionaries."
"He risked his life to stop a tyrant then gave his life trying to help build a better Libya," she said at the State Department.
US President Barack Obama praised Stevens as a "courageous and exemplary representative of the United States," saying he had "selflessly served our country and the Libyan people."
"It is especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi because it is a city that he helped to save," Obama said.
Stevens joined the Foreign Service, "learned languages, won friends for America in distant places and made other people's hopes his own," Clinton said.
She added she had told his sister Anne early Wednesday that "he will be remembered as a hero by many nations," adding the "world needs more Chris Stevenses."
In the State Department video, Stevens talked about growing up in California and graduating from the University of California at Berkeley. Old pictures showed him hiking in the mountains.
He described how he fell in love with the Middle East and North Africa during a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, when he worked as an English teacher in Morocco's Atlas Mountains.
He went on to join the State Department, where he served as a US foreign service officer in Jerusalem, Damascus, Cairo and Riyadh over the course of a 21-year career.
Colleagues described him as very friendly and affable, and optimistic about the future of Libya, although realistic about the difficulties ahead.
Libya's ambassador to the United States, Ali Aujali, mourned the loss of Stevens, whom he said he had known for six years, saying: "We lost him as a friend, as a man who stands by us and the revolution."
Stevens served in Libya as deputy chief of mission between 2007 and 2009, shortly after the United States restored relations with Kadhafi's regime.
It was not immediately clear why Stevens was in the Benghazi consulate at the time of Tuesday's attack or whether those who attacked it knew he was there.
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