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Violence explodes as Muslims protest anti-Islam film

Pakistani Muslim demonstrators walk over US and Israeli flags as they attempt to reach the US embassy during a demonstration against an anti-Islam film in Islamabad on September 14, 2012. AFP/Aamir Qureshi
The online news portal of TV5

KHARTOUM - Furious protesters targeted symbols of US influence in cities across the Muslim world on Friday, attacking embassies, schools and restaurants in retaliation for a film that mocks Islam.

At least five protesters died in Tunisia, Lebanon and Sudan as local police battled to defend American missions from mobs of stone-throwers, and Washington deployed US Marines to protect its embassies in Libya and Yemen.

The protests broke out when Muslims emerged from mosques following weekly prayers to voice their anger at a crude film made in the United States by a right-wing Christian group that ridicules the Prophet Mohammed.

For a third day, television pictures of flames licking around embassy compounds and masked youths exchanging rocks for teargas from riot police were the dominant images of Arab attitudes to Washington. Most diplomatic staff were absent, as most of the region marked the weekend.

Clashes or demonstrations were reported from as far apart as Mauritania and Indonesia. Troops in Nigeria fired live rounds in the flashpoint city of Jos and Egyptian police fought street battles in downtown Cairo.

In the Sudanese capital Khartoum, guards on the roof of the US embassy fired warning shots as the compound was breached by protesters waving Islamic banners, after earlier ransacking parts of the British and German missions.

Police had earlier fired volleys of tear gas in a bid to prevent the 10,000-strong crowd marching on the US embassy after they had swarmed over the German mission, tearing down the flag to replace it with a black Islamist one before torching the building.

A police vehicle near the US embassy was also torched as hundreds of demonstrators broke through an outer security cordon after one protester was hit by a police vehicle and killed, a medic and the reporter said.

The body of another protester was later found outside the embassy compound, but the circumstances of his death were not immediately clear.

‘Nothing justifies attacks’

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso condemned the embassy attacks as against "the rules of the civilized world."

"Nothing justifies these kinds of attacks," he said.

Tunisian demonstrators, meanwhile, set fire to several vehicles and an American school after taking away laptops during a failed attack on the main embassy compound, and in Lebanon, 300 Islamists set fire to a branch of the US fast food chain KFC.

In Tunis, police firing live rounds and tear gas drove angry protesters from the US embassy, with clashes there killing at least two people and wounding 29 others.

Counting on Washington for economic aid, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki in a television address called the attack an "unacceptable" act against "a friendly country."

Violence also erupted in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, where a crowd of 300 Islamists attacked and set fire to a KFC restaurant, sparking clashes with police in which one person died and 25 were injured, security sources said.

The attack came as Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Lebanon for a three-day visit, calling for Christian-Muslim coexistence and attacking religious extremism.

And with tempers boiling across the Muslim world over the movie since the US ambassador to Libya was killed in an attack on an American consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday, the Pentagon said it has sent a team of Marines to Yemen.

The announcement came as tension spiralled again in Yemen's capital Sanaa, with security forces firing warning shots and water cannon to disperse crowds trying to reach the American embassy.

Security forces blocked all roads to the mission, after similar confrontations left four people dead on Thursday.

With much of the anger directed at the United States, where the film was made reportedly by a Coptic Christian and promoted by a rightwing pastor, Washington had earlier ordered heightened security at its embassies worldwide.

In Cairo, where the first protests against the film broke out on Tuesday, protesters again clashed with police outside the US embassy.

Clashes subsided earlier when police erected a wall of concrete blocks in a road leading to the American compound. But protesters then moved to a different road and hurled stones at police who responded with tear gas.

"We were attacked by Obama, and his government, and the Coptic Christians living abroad!" shouted one long-bearded Muslim protester during the Cairo stand-off with police ringing the US embassy. The involvement of a prominent Egyptian-American Christian in promoting the film has caused anger and worry among Christian leaders in Egypt, who condemned the film.

Earlier, the Muslim Brotherhood withdrew calls for nationwide protests in response to the film "Innocence of Muslims" that mocks the Prophet Mohammed, saying they would instead take part in a "symbolic" demonstration.

Egypt's new Islamist president, Mohamed Mursi, condemned a third day of stone-throwing and siege around the US embassy in Cairo, a linchpin of US policy in the Middle East. Mursi must tread a line between appealing to an electorate receptive to the appeal of more hardline Islamists and maintaining ties with Washington, which long funded the ousted military dictatorship.

A challenge to Obama’s foreign policy

In Washington, President Barack Obama on Friday welcomed home the bodies of four US officials who were killed on Tuesday when armed militants stormed the consulate in Benghazi, cradle of last year's Western-backed Libyan revolution.

"Their sacrifice will never be forgotten, we will bring to justice those who took them from us. We will stand fast against the violence on our diplomatic missions," Obama said at Andrews Air Force Base.

The fighting brought foreign policy back to the heart of the debate in the US presidential race, and on Friday also clouded the start of Pope Benedict's three-day visit to Lebanon.

In much of the region, police from broadly pro-Western regimes attempted to contain the protests, but in Iran, crowds had official sanction to chant "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" in central Tehran.

Iran state television showed the crowd streaming out after Friday prayers at Tehran University in which a hardline cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, blamed the US for the crude film in which actors have strong American accents, portraying Muslims as immoral and gratuitously violent.

Protests have spread across the Middle East and further afield, including to Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Kashmir, Pakistan, Iraq, Israel and the Gaza Strip, Mauritanian, Morocco, Syria, Kuwait, Nigeria and Kenya.

In India, police arrested 86 protesters in Chennai and in Afghanistan the outrage whipped up by the film mixed with resentment at the ongoing Western military presence to feed large-scale street protests.

About 10,000 people held a noisy protest in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. They burned US flags, chanted anti-US slogans and demanded punishment for the offenders, but were stopped from marching to the US embassy. There was no violence.

Protesters in Afghanistan set fire to an effigy of Obama and burned a US flag after Friday prayers in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

$100,000 bounty on pastor’s head

Directing their anger against an American Christian pastor who endorsed the film, tribal leaders also agreed to put a $100,000 bounty on his head.

Palestinians staged demonstrations in both the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israeli police, some on horseback, used stun grenades and made a number of arrests outside Jerusalem's Old City as a few dozen demonstrators tried to march on the nearby US consulate.

In Nablus, in the northern West Bank, several hundred people protested and burned an American flag, witnesses said.

At least 30,000 Palestinians took part in rallies across the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the Islamist group Hamas.

In Gaza City, American and Israeli flags were set alight, along with an effigy of the film's supposed producer.

The eruption of violence posed a challenge for Obama, less than eight weeks before his re-election battle against Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who accused the incumbent of inviting violence through a weak and muddled stance.

In response, Obama has promised to show resolve and to stand by the fragile fledgling democracies of the Middle East, while deploying platoons of marines to vulnerable embassies and hunting the killers of the four envoys.

"Even as voices of suspicion and mistrust seek to divide countries and cultures from one another, the United States of America will never retreat from the world," Obama vowed, alongside the flag-draped coffins.

‘Tyranny of a mob’

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told relatives of the dead men -- US ambassador Chris Stevens, information officer Sean Smith and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty -- that the killings dishonored the Arab Spring.

The revolution in Tunisia last year was followed by uprisings in Egypt, Yemen and Libya, and an anti-government revolt is still being fought out in Syria.

Clinton appealed to the peoples of the four hesitant new democracies to resist the men of violence.

"We've seen the heavy assault on our post in Benghazi that took the lives of those brave men. We've seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful Internet video that we had nothing to do with," she said in an address before the flag-draped caskets at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington.

"It is hard for the American people to make sense of that because it is senseless and it is totally unacceptable.

"The people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob," Clinton added. "Reasonable people and responsible leaders in these countries need to do everything they can to restore security and hold accountable those behind these violent acts."

US military and intelligence agencies have already launched a manhunt in Libya for the militants who staged the assault on the Benghazi consulate, with an FBI team on its way and drones criss-crossing North African skies.

"There's an intense focus," a US defense official told AFP.

The head of Libya's national assembly, Mohammed al-Megaryef, blamed Al-Qaeda for the attack and said he regretted the loss of "a friend of Libyans who rendered laudable services to Libya."

The United Nations on Friday evacuated its expatriate staff in Benghazi to Tripoli "temporarily" for security reasons, a spokeswoman for the UN Support Mission in Libya said.

Washington sought to keep a lid on the demonstrations by spelling out that the controversial film was made privately by a small group of individuals with no official backing.

The self-proclaimed producer of the film is Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a 55-year-old Copt living in California. It was promoted on the websites of two other Americans, extremist Christian pastor Terry Jones and another Copt, Washington-based lawyer Morris Sadek.

Nakoula told American Arabic-language Radio Sawa that he had no regrets about making the film.

"No, I do not regret it. I am saddened by the killing of the ambassador but I do not regret making it," he said on Thursday.