Tripoli: The protests over a film that ridiculed Islam’s Prophet Muhammad turned deadly when the US ambassador and three other Americans were killed in an attack on the US consulate in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi.
Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagour also confirmed on Wednesday that US Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed in the attack. He also condemned the “cowardly act of attacking the US consulate and the killing of Mr Stevens and the other diplomats” on Twitter.
According to Libyan officials, Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed on Tuesday night when he and a group of embassy employees went to the consulate to try to evacuate staff. The protesters were firing gunshots and rocket propelled grenades.
All of the officials — three in all — hold senior security positions in Benghazi.
They are deputy interior minister for eastern Libya Wanis al-Sharaf; Benghazi security chief Abdel-Basit Haroun; and Benghazi city council and security official Ahmed Bousinia.
On Tuesday, protesters angered over a film that ridiculed Islam’s Prophet Muhammad fired gunshots and burned down the US consulate in Benghazi. In Egypt, protesters scaled the walls of the US embassy in Cairo, and tore and replaced the American flag with an Islamic banner.
Tuesday’s attacks were the first such assaults on US diplomatic facilities in either country, at a time when both Libya and Egypt are struggling to overcome the turmoil following the ouster of their longtime leaders, Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak, in uprisings last year.
The protests in both countries were sparked by outrage over a film ridiculing Muhammad produced by an Israeli filmmaker living in California and being promoted by an extreme anti-Muslim Egyptian Christian campaigner in the United States. Excerpts from the film dubbed into Arabic were posted on YouTube.
Also, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton confirmed that one State Department officer had been killed in the protest at the US consulate in Benghazi. However, she did not mention Stevens’ name.
She also strongly condemned the attack and said she had called Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif “to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya”.
Hillary expressed concern that the protests might spread to other countries. She said the US is working with “partner countries around the world to protect our personnel, our missions, and American citizens worldwide”.
“Some have sought to justify this vicious behaviour as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet,” Hillary said in a statement released by the State Department. “The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”
In Benghazi, a large mob stormed the US consulate, with gunmen firing their weapons, said Wanis al-Sharef, an Interior Ministry official in Benghazi. A witness said attackers fired automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at the consulate as they clashed with Libyans hired to guard the facility.
Outnumbered by the crowd, Libyan security forces did little to stop them, al-Sharef said.
The crowd overwhelmed the facility and set fire to it, burning most of it and looting the contents, witnesses said.
The violence at the consulate lasted for about three hours, but the situation has now quieted down, said a witness.
Hours before the Benghazi attack, hundreds of mainly ultraconservative Islamist protesters in Egypt marched to the US embassy in downtown Cairo, gathering outside its walls and chanting against the movie and the US. Most of the embassy staff had left the compound earlier because of warnings of the upcoming demonstration.
“Say it, don’t fear: Their ambassador must leave,” the crowd chanted.
Dozens of protesters then scaled the embassy walls, and several went into the courtyard and took down the American flag from a pole. They brought it back to the crowd outside, which tried to burn it, but failing that tore it apart.
The protesters on the wall then raised on the flagpole a black flag with a Muslim declaration of faith,
“There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet.” The flag, similar to the banner used by al Qaeda, is commonly used by ultraconservatives around the region.
The crowd grew throughout on Tuesday evening, with thousands standing outside the embassy. Dozens of riot police lined up along the embassy walls but did not stop protesters as they continued to climb and stand on the wall — though it appeared no more went into the compound.
The crowd chanted, “Islamic, Islamic. The right of our prophet will not die”. Some shouted, “We are all Osama”, referring to al Qaeda leader bin Laden. Young men, some in masks, sprayed graffiti on the walls. Some grumbled that Islamist President Mohammed Mursi had not spoken out about the movie.
A group of women in black veils and robes that left only their eyes exposed chanted, “Worshippers of the Cross, leave the Prophet Muhammad alone.”
By midnight, the crowd dwindled. By early morning Wednesday, only about a dozen protesters remained, chanting “No God but Allah” for the benefit of news camera at the scene. Two bearded men nearby loudly debated about way to stop “America from harming the prophet”.
Most streets leading up to the embassy reopened to traffic except for a side street employees use to enter the compound. Six Egyptian Army armoured vehicles were parked, next to a line of anti-riot police in helmets and body armour.
The embassy announced there will be no visa services on Wednesday.
A senior Egyptian security official at the embassy area said earlier on Tuesday night that authorities allowed the protest because it was “peaceful”. When they started climbing the walls, he said he called for more troops, denying that the protesters stormed the embassy. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to reporters.