CAIRO – A movie attacking Islam’s prophet Muhammad sparked assaults on U.S. diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt on Tuesday. A Libyan security official reported an American was shot to death as protesters burned the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and in Cairo, protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy and replaced an American flag with an Islamic banner.
It was the first such assaults on U.S. 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, Moammar Gadhafi and Hosni Mubarak, in uprisings last year.
In the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, a large mob stormed the U.S. Consulate, with gunmen firing their weapons, said Wanis al-Sharef, an Interior Ministry official in Bengazi. A witness said attackers fired automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at the consulate, and 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.
One American was shot to death and a second was wounded in the hand, al-Sharef said. He did not give further details, and there was no immediate U.S. confirmation of the death.
Hours before the Benghazi attack, hundreds of mainly ultraconservative Islamist protesters in Egypt marched to the U.S. Embassy in downtown Cairo, gathering outside its walls and chanting against the movie and the U.S.
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, instead 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-Qaida, is commonly used by ultraconservatives around the region.
The crowd grew throughout the 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-Qaida leader bin Laden. Young men, some in masks, sprayed graffiti on the walls.
A 14-minute trailer of the movie that sparked the protests, posted on the website YouTube in an original English version and another dubbed into Egyptian Arabic, depicts Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a madman in an overtly ridiculing way, showing him having sex and calling for massacres.
Sam Bacile, an American citizen who said he produced, directed and wrote the two-hour film, said he had not anticipated such a furious reaction.
I feel sorry for the embassy. I am mad, Bacile said.
Speaking from a telephone with a California number, Bacile said the film was produced in English and he doesn’t know who dubbed it in Arabic. The full film has not been shown yet, he said, and he said he has declined distribution offers for now.
Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-born Christian in the U.S. known for his anti-Islam views, told The Associated Press from Washington that he was promoting the video on his website and on certain TV stations, which he did not identify.
Both said the film shows how Coptic Christians are oppressed in Egypt, though it goes well beyond that to ridicule Muhammad – a reflection of their contention that Islam as a religion is inherently oppressive.