By Ibrahim al-Majbari
Washington’s envoy to Libya and three other Americans were killed when a mob outraged over a movie mocking Islam stormed the US consulate in Benghazi, Libyan and US officials said on Wednesday.
President Barack Obama quickly ordered increased security at US diplomatic posts around the world, while slamming Tuesday’s deadly assault in Benghazi, an Islamist stronghold in eastern Libya, which coincided with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks in the United States.
“I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens,” Obama said, in a White House statement.
“I have directed my Administration to provide all necessary resources to support the security of our personnel in Libya, and to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the globe,” he added.
Stevens, a career officer with the US foreign service, had been in the country for less than four months after taking up his post in the capital Tripoli in May.
Witnesses said he was killed when angry Islamists late Tuesday attacked the consulate with rocket-propelled grenades before looting and torching the building.
A security source in Benghazi – cradle of the 2011 uprising that toppled the regime of late dictator Moamer Kadhafi – said it was suspected that the envoy may have suffocated due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
A picture taken by an AFP photographer shows what witnesses say is an injured Stevens being aided by Libyans inside the premises of the consulate.
The Benghazi attack came just hours after Islamists had stormed the US embassy in Cairo in a similar protest against the amateur American-made Internet video.
Clips of the film at the center of the controversy have been posted on the Internet and private satellite channels have been showing segments.
The low-budget movie, “Innocence of Muslims” in which actors have strong American accents, portrays Muslims as immoral and gratuitously violent. It pokes fun at the Prophet Mohammed and touches on themes of paedophilia and homosexuality, while showing him sleeping with women, talking about killing children and referring to a donkey as “the first Muslim animal.”
The film was produced by Israeli-American Sam Bacile, according to the Wall Street Journal, but Egyptian media say that some Egyptian Copts living in the US were involved in the production.
The film is being promoted by controversial Florida pastor Terry Jones, who has drawn protests in the past for burning the Koran and vehemently opposing the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York.
Abdelmonoem al-Horr, spokesman for the Libyan interior ministry’s security commission, had on Tuesday said rocket-propelled grenades were fired at the consulate from a nearby farm.
Witnesses said the attackers ripped up a US flag, then looted the consulate before setting it on fire. “Dozens of demonstrators attacked the consulate and set fire to it,” said a Benghazi resident, who gave his name only as Omar, adding that he had seen the flames and heard shots in the vicinity.
Another Libyan witness said armed men, including ultra-conservative Salafists, had closed off the streets leading to the consulate. Apologies to the American people The violent protest was strongly condemned by Libya’s General National Congress, which nonetheless maintained it plans to elect a new prime minister at a session later on Wednesday.
The first order of business for the new premier will be to bring order to the myriad militias born out of last year’s uprising. “We present our apologies to the United States, the American people and the entire world for what happened,” the GNC’s president, Mohamed al-Megaryef, in a statement.
The Libyan assault came after thousands of Egyptian demonstrators Tuesday tore down the Stars and Stripes at the US embassy in Cairo and replaced it with a black Islamic flag, similar to one adopted by several militant groups.
Nearly 3,000 demonstrators, most of them hardline Islamist supporters of the Salafist movement, gathered at the embassy in a protest over the film. A dozen men scaled the embassy walls and one of them tore down the US flag, replacing it with the black one inscribed with the Muslim profession of faith.
Egyptian police intervened without resort to force and persuaded the trespassers to come down, an AFP correspondent reported. An Egyptian official said that security has been stepped up in the area around the embassy.
The Egyptian government condemned the film saying it was anti-Islam but urged restraint. The Muslim Brotherhood called for protests outside mosques across Egypt on Friday in protest at the film. Coptic activists said they would stage a vigil on Wednesday. In Israel, former cabinet minister Michael Melchior hit out at the film.
“As a Jew and an Israeli rabbi, I am ashamed of the demeaning style and language of this film,” said Melchior. Iran said Washington needed to do more to prevent Muslim sensitivities being offended.
“The US government’s systematic and continued silence on such repulsive acts is the fundamental reason that they keep happening,” foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said.
France, which was a major backer of last year’s uprising that ousted Kadhafi, demanded that the new authorities take action to restore order in Benghazi which has seen a wave of violence in recent months.
“We had hoped and continued to hope that it would pacify the country but obviously you can always have extremists who behave in this way. It is absolutely unacceptable and the Libyan authorities must react,” said Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.