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DOHA, Sep 12 2012 (IPS) - The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, has died from smoke inhalation in an attack on the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, the country’s interior ministry and security sources have said.*
An armed mob attacked and set fire to the building in a protest against an amateur film deemed offensive to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, after similar protests in Egypt’s capital. The video was produced by an Israeli filmmaker and promoted by expatriate members of Egypt’s Coptic community resident in the U.S.
The ambassador was paying a short visit to the city when the consulate came under attack on Tuesday night, Al Jazeera’s Suleiman El-Dressi reported from Benghazi.
He died of suffocation during the attack, along with two U.S. security personnel who were accompanying him, security sources told Al Jazeera. Another consulate employee, whose nationality could not immediately be confirmed, was also killed.
Two other staff were injured, El-Dressi reported. The deaths were confirmed by Wanis al-Sharif, the Libyan deputy interior minister, to the AFP news agency.
Addressing a press conference, Sharif blamed loyalists of former Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi for the attack, while stressing that the U.S. should have removed its personnel from the country when news of the film’s release broke.
“They are to blame simply for not withdrawing their personnel from the premises, despite the fact that there was a similar incident when (al-Qaeda second-in-command and Libyan citizen) Abu Yahya al-Libi was killed. It was necessary that they take precautions. It was their fault that they did not take the necessary precautions,” he said.
Sharif said that those who attacked the consulate were more heavily armed than the Libyan security services tasked with protecting the embassy.
Mustafa Abu Shagur, the Libyan deputy prime minister, condemned the “cowardly act of attacking the U.S. consulate and killing (the ambassador) and the other diplomats”.
Abdel Moneim al-Yasser, a member of the interim committee monitoring security in Libya, told Al Jazeera: “A handful of renegades of people who are attacking the national interests of Libya are behind this issue. We are still investigating their identity…we will track them and bring them to justice.”
The bodies of the dead were transported to the Benghazi international airport, to be flown to Tripoli and then onwards to a major U.S. airbase in Germany.
Abdel Moneim al-Hurr, a spokesman for Libya’s Supreme Security Committee, said on Wednesday that rocket-propelled grenades had been fired at the consulate from a nearby farm.
“There (were) fierce clashes between the Libyan army and an armed militia outside the U.S. consulate,” he said. He also said roads had been closed off and security forces surrounded the building.
A group calling themselves the “Islamic law supporters” carried out the attack in response to the release of the film, Al Jazeera’s El-Dressi reported.
On Wednesday morning, the compound stood empty, with passersby freely walking in to take a look at the damage. Walls were charred and a small fire burned inside one of the buildings. A small group of men was trying to extinguish the flames and three security men briefly surveyed the scene.
Some blood stains could also be seen in front of one of the buildings. Three cars had been torched.
Stevens, a career member of the U.S. foreign service, arrived in Tripoli to take up the post of ambassador in May 2012, having previously served twice in Libya. He had also served as the U.S. government’s representative to the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) during the 2011 uprising against the government of Gaddafi.
In a statement, U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the killing and said that he had ordered increased security at all U.S. diplomatic posts.
Mohammed al-Magariaf, the president of the Libyan general congress, also condemned the attack, saying that it was part of a campaign “to impede our democratic experiment”. He blamed “remnants of the Gaddafi regime” for the attacks.
Just hours earlier on Tuesday, thousands of Egyptian demonstrators apparently angry over the same film tore down the Stars and Stripes at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and replaced it with a black Islamic flag.
The two incidents came on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S.
“Some have sought to justify this vicious behaviour as a response to inflammatory material posted on the internet,” said a statement by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had earlier confirmed the death of a consulate employee, without specifying his identity.
“The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,” she said.
In the day’s first such incident, nearly 3,000 demonstrators, most of them Islamist supporters of the Salafist movement or football fans, gathered at the U.S. embassy in Cairo in protest against the amateur film.
A dozen men scaled the embassy walls and one of them tore down the U.S. flag, replacing it with a black one inscribed with the Muslim profession of faith: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”
Demonstrators also scrawled the first part of the statement “There is no God but Allah” on the walls of the embassy compound.
Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros, reporting from outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo, said that the protesters want the film – portions of which can be found online – “out of circulation”.
“Most of the people I’ve spoken to here, a lot of them from the ultra-conservative Salafi movement, say that they’ve seen the trailer to this film and that they’re here outside the American embassy to stay until the film is pulled,” she said.
“There’s also a situation with the police, where there are thousands of riot police guarding the American embassy because of the breach earlier on, when a lot of people stormed into the inner wall of the embassy and put a black flag up.”
Egyptian police intervened without resorting to force and persuaded the trespassers to come down.
The crowd then largely dispersed, leaving just a few hundred protesters outside the U.S. mission.
When asked whether the flag the protesters hoisted was an al-Qaeda flag, on the anniversary of the killing of nearly 3,000 people in Washington, New York and Pennsylvania, a U.S. State Department official said she thought it was not.
“We had some people breach the wall, take the flag down and replace it. What I heard was that it was replaced with a plain black flag. But I may not be correct in that,” she said.
“In Cairo, we can confirm that Egyptian police have now removed the demonstrators who had entered our embassy grounds earlier today,” said a senior State Department official, who added that he could not confirm any connection with the incident in Libya.
Egyptian activist Wael Ghoneim wrote on his Facebook page that “attacking the U.S. embassy on September 11 and raising flags linked to al-Qaeda will not be understood by the American public as a protest over the film about the prophet.
“Instead, it will be received as a celebration of the crime that took place on September 11,” he said.
Americans on Tuesday marked the 11th anniversary of the September 11, attacks in which thousands were killed when hijacked airliners crashed into the Pentagon and New York’s World Trade Center, and another was brought down in Pennsylvania.
‘Sorry for the embassy’
The film was made by an Israeli filmmaker, Sam Bacile, who has gone into hiding. It was promoted by Morris Sadek, an extreme anti-Muslim Egyptian Christian campaigner who lives in California.
Speaking by phone to the Associated Press from an undisclosed location, writer and director Bacile remained defiant, maintaining that he intended his film to be a provocative political statement.
Bacile, 52, admitted he had not anticipated such a furious reaction to his film and said: “I feel sorry for the embassy. I am mad.”
He also said the film was produced in English and that he did not know who had dubbed it in Arabic.
The full film has not been shown yet, he said, adding that he had declined distribution offers for now.
The two-hour movie, “Innocence of Muslims”, cost five million dollars to make and was financed with the help of more than 100 Jewish donors, said Bacile.
Sadek said that he had promoted the video on his website and on certain TV stations, which he did not identify.
*Published under an agreement with Al Jazeera.
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