Clinton may testify on Libya attack on Jan 22

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may make a long-awaited appearance before lawmakers on Jan 22 to be quizzed about the deadly attack on a United States (US) mission in Libya, a senator said on Tuesday.

Mrs Clinton had initially been due to testify to US lawmakers in late December after a scathing inquiry blamed "grossly inadequate" security at the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi for failing to protect staff there.

But she was forced to cancel her testimony and send in her two deputy secretaries instead when she fell ill with a virulent stomach bug, and later suffered a concussion and blood clot.

Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed when a wave of heavily-armed militants overran the compound and a nearby annex on Sept 11, unleashing a bloody and terrifying eight-hour assault.

The Accountability Review Board set up by Mrs Clinton to investigate the attack slammed "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department" responsible for security.

Assistant Secretary Eric Boswell, head of the bureau of diplomatic security, resigned his post after the report was released and was placed on administrative leave along with three other senior staff.

But Republican lawmakers have been itching to grill Mrs Clinton before she wraps up her four years in office in a few weeks, after they accused the US administration of some kind of cover-up over the deadly assault.

Senator Bob Corker, ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, told MSNBC television he had been in discussions with Mrs Clinton's top aides about setting a new date for her to testify.

"My sense is her hearing probably will take place the morning of the 22nd," Mr Corker said.

"She's anxious to want to come up and testify on Benghazi, and I think that's an important thing both for her and for our entire country."

There was no immediate confirmation of the date from the State Department.

Mrs Clinton only returned to work on Monday after a month-long absence due to ill health, and is busy drawing up her schedule for her final weeks in office.

State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland reiterated on Tuesday that the plan was for Mrs Clinton to testify about Benghazi while still in office.

"The goal on our side is that we would have the secretary able to testify, as she's promised to do, while she's still sitting secretary," Ms Nuland told reporters.

President Barack Obama has tapped the veteran Democratic senator John Kerry to replace Mrs Clinton, but his nomination requires confirmation by the Senate, which is on recess until Jan 21.

Ms Nuland said the aim was to "have the confirmation hearing as quickly as appropriate after they (the senators) come back in". But she refused comment on news that a Tunis court has ordered the release of Ali Hamzi, a Tunisian suspected of involvement in the Benghazi attack.

Hamzi's lawyer Abdelbasset Ben Mbarek said on Monday that despite being interrogated by four Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents in Tunisia last month no evidence had been found against him.

"He has returned to his family," the lawyer told Agence France-Presse (AFP). "If he had been implicated in the attack, he would not have been released."

Ms Nuland would not comment, saying the criminal investigation into the Benghazi attack was being handled by the FBI.

"We have confidence that we will see justice in this case. But the FBI has the lead. They have to do this right," Ms Nuland told journalists.

The FBI also refused any comment to AFP on the case, saying only in a statement that it "continues to pursue all investigative leads".