By Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Ghaith Shennib
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - A car bomb devastated France's embassy in Tripoli on Tuesday, wounding two French guards in the Libyan capital, which had not seen major attacks like that which killed the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi last year.
Since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled by Western-backed rebels in 2011, Tripoli, like the rest of the sprawling desert state, has 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 was a terrorist act ... aimed at killing," said Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius after he flew in to inspect the damage and visit the wounded, one of whom had emergency surgery.
Security will 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.
In a separate incident on Tuesday, a gunman fired shots outside France's embassy in Yemen, prompting local authorities to reinforce security around its diplomatic mission in Sanaa.
President Francois Hollande called on Libya to bring the bombers to justice and Fabius said Paris was dispatching a counter-terrorism magistrate to help with an investigation.
Libya's government, struggling to exert its authority, said it was a "terrorist act" aimed at destabilising the country. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan visited the scene with Fabius, viewing the wreckage and the charred and damaged facade of the embassy.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility; al Qaeda's north African arm, AQIM, had threatened retaliation for the French intervention in Mali as recently as last week, however.
Westerners in the region have been on 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.
"This is a very worrying sign for the government," one Western diplomat in Libya said. "It will be a further deterrent for companies who have so far been reluctant to come to Libya."
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, adding that the embassy was now out of action and staff would move elsewhere.
In the chaos following Gaddafi's overthrow and death, there have been attacks on diplomats, notably in Benghazi in the east.
In September, U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed at Washington's mission in that city, a hub for Libya's lucrative oil industry. U.S. officials say militants with ties to al Qaeda were most 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.
Previous incidents in Tripoli have been minor compared to Tuesday's, which was condemned by the European Union and United Nations. In June, a small bomb exploded outside the consulate of neighbouring Tunisia; in January, a bomb was thrown at an empty building which U.N. officials had considered using.
People living near the French embassy compound, in Tripoli's Hay Andalus neighbourhood, close to the Mediterranean seafront, said they heard two explosions at around 7 a.m. (6:00 a.m. British time).
Tripoli police chief Mohammed Sharif said "an explosive device was planted in a car parked outside the embassy".
A large part of the wall around the compound collapsed. Office cabinets lay scattered on the ground and water from a burst pipe ran down the street. Cars had been blown apart.
One neighbour said his young daughter was taken to hospital after she was hit by a falling piece of masonry at home. Fabius said two local people had been treated for injuries.
"I was woken 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."
Deputy Prime Minister Awad al-Barasi said at the scene: "We are at a critical stage and there are some who want to destabilise Libya ... This will not stop us moving forward."
Interior Minister Ashour Shuail said a diplomatic security force, long promised by Libya, would be active within days.
(Additional reporting by John Irish and Leigh Thomas in Paris; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)