Anti-western anger spreads across Arab world as embassies burn in wake of film
American victims of US consulate attack in Libya are returned to US soil as violence widens to include more embassy attacks
A wave of anger that saw US, British and German embassies in Khartoum attacked by rioters swept across the Muslim world on Friday, with violent scenes playing out on streets from north Africa to south-east Asia.
Protests, mostly aimed at US embassies and galvanised by the emergence of a crude anti-Islam video made in California, were reported in Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Yemen, Egypt, Jerusalem and the West Bank, Kashmir, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Nigerian city of Jos.
In Tunis, crowds of rioters throwing stones clashed with police outside the US embassy, who responded with teargas. Several dozen protesters briefly stormed the embassy compound, tearing down the American flag and raising a banner bearing the Muslim profession of faith, the Associated Press reported. Reports said at least two demonstrators had been killed.
A fire could be seen within the embassy compound, and the American school in Tunis was also reported to be ablaze.
Some of the worst violence of the day was in the Sudanese capital, where protesters targeted the German embassy first, storming through the outer wall and setting fire to buildings and a car near the gates before they were pushed back by police firing teargas. German diplomats fled to the British embassy next door, which became the next target of the mob.
The US embassy in Khartoum, which appears to have been the next target, announced that protesters had been expelled from its compound. The embassy attacks in Sudan marked the first time anti-US protests over the film had mutated into a broader anti-western revolt.
In Cairo, where the current wave of unrest began on Tuesday, clashes between demonstrators and police erupted in the city for a fourth straight day, with one person left dead.
Defying an appeal from president Mohamed Morsi to protect embassies, the crowds had gathered in Tahrir Square after Friday prayers where they tore up a US flag. When they tried to move towards the embassy, they were blocked by police, who fired tear gas.
As the riots continued to spread, the bodies of four state department officials killed in the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, including the ambassador to Libya, were returned to US soil. They were met by Barack Obama who said their deaths must cause even the most hopeful to question a fundamental American belief in leaving the world a better place.
Speaking next to the flag-draped coffins of the ambassador, Chris Stevens, and the three other victims at Andrews air force base in Maryland, the president praised each of the men in turn while again vowing to “bring to justice the ones who took them from us” and to “stand fast” against the continuing attacks on US embassies as anti-American protests spread across the Middle East.
“They didn’t simply embrace the American ideal, they lived it. They embodied it. The courage, the hope and, yes, the idealism. That fundamental American belief that we can leave this world a little better than before,” said Obama, who was accompanied by secretary of state Hillary Clinton and other senior members of the administration.
“I know that this awful loss, the terrible images of recent days, the pictures we’re seeing again today, have caused some to question this work. And there is no doubt that these are difficult days. In moments such as this, so much anger and violence, even the most hopeful among us must wonder.”
But, the president said, there were also Libyans who took to the streets with homemade signs repudiating the killings.
Two US destroyers have been deployed to the Libyan coast and a 50-strong unit of marines trained in counter-terrorist operations have arrived in country. US drones over Benghazi were targeted by anti-aircraft fire by the extremist groups in the area who are believed to have led Tuesday’s storming of the consulate. As a result, the city’s airport was temporarily closed.
As Washington scrambled to protect its far-flung diplomats, marines were also reported to have arrived to bolster security at the embassy in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, which has also been the target of rioters.
It was unclear how much the violence was spontaneous and to what extent it had been orchestrated. The film involved was apparently made last year by a Coptic Christian living in Los Angeles, using actors who have said they had no idea they were making an anti-Islam film. The offensive language about the prophet Muhammad was dubbed in later.
A 14-minute clip of the film appeared on YouTube in July but only began to generate widespread anger this week, when it was promoted by radical Islamophobic Christians in the US and then broadcast in Egypt by Islamic activists.
The secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, denounced the film as “disgusting and reprehensible”.
US officials have said they believe outrage over the film may have been used by an extremist Libyan group, Ansar al-Sharia, as cover and a diversion for an assault on the Benghazi consulate that had been long planned for the 11th anniversary of the 11 September attacks.
The president of the Libyan assembly, Yousef al-Megariaf, agreed. During a visit to Benghazi, he described the storming of the consulate as “pre-planned to hit at the core of the relationship between Libya and the United States”.