(Update: The headline and intro of this report were amended to acknowledge uncertainty surrounding attribution for the Benghazi assault.)
(CNSNews.com) – Reports about a movie deemed to blaspheme Mohammed were blamed for triggering angry protests Tuesday in Egypt, where thousands rallied outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, while in Libya, gunmen killed at least one employee at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
A Libyan security spokesman was quoted as saying an American had been killed and several other people injured in clashes in Libya's second-largest city.
“We can confirm that our office in Benghazi, Libya has been attacked by a group of militants,” said the State Department in a statement that did not refer to fatalities. “We are working with the Libyans now to secure the compound. We condemn in strongest terms this attack on our diplomatic mission.”
Eyewitnesses cited by the Associated Press said attackers had used automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades in the assault, and that protestors set the building on fire. Further details were not immediately available.
In Cairo, several thousand people protested at the U.S. Embassy, with some scaling the walls of the compound and destroying the American flag, which had been flying at half mast to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The flag was replaced with a black banner carrying the Islamic declaration of faith, “There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.”
The Egyptian Army intervened at one point, deploying soldiers to surround the embassy grounds.
Protestors told Egyptian media they were protesting the screening in the U.S. of a film relating to Mohammed.The online movie, variously entitled “Mohammed, Prophet of the Muslims” or “Innocence of Muslims,” was produced by Sam Bacile, an Israeli filmmaker living in California, the Associated Press reported. Excerpts from the film were dubbed into Arabic and posted on YouTube.
Al-Masry al-Youm cited protestors as demanding that the U.S. ambassador be expelled, the film not be screened, and that the Egyptians involved in the project have their citizenship revoked.
The embassy issued a statement condemning “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”
“Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy,” it said. “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
The statement – issued earlier in the day – did not refer to the protest, although an entry on the embassy’s Twitter account later did condemn the “unjustified breach of the Embassy.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a press briefing in Washington she did not have full details but understood the protest involved a “relatively modest group of people, but caught probably us and the Egyptian security outside the embassy by some surprise.”
“It’s rarely the case that you please all of the people all the time in any country, and we certainly respect the right of peaceful protest, as long as it’s peaceful,” she said.
Asked about an apparent rise in anti-U.S. sentiment in Egypt, Nuland replied, “I would urge you not to draw too many conclusions because we've also had some very positive developments in our relationship with Egypt.”
Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan said the organization plans a “million-man rally” on Friday to protest the film, Al-Ahram reported.
It said Ghozlan demanded that the U.S. government formally apologize for the movie and prosecute those involved, but also urged protestors to remain peaceful and not vandalize property.
In his statement, Jones condemned the protests in Cairo – he did not mention Libya – saying the protestors’ actions “further indicates the lack of respect that Islam has for any other religion, any other flag, any freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of religion. It further illustrates that they have no tolerance for anything outside of Mohammed.”
The protest occurred one day after radical Sunni groups in Egypt issued a statement threatening to torch the U.S. Embassy over the issue of jihadists held in U.S. prisons.
A report Monday in the independent Arabic newspaper El Fagr (The Dawn) said groups including Gama’a Islamiya warned against the continued presence of the American Embassy in Cairo and demanded the immediate release of jihadists held at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. prisons.
They include Gama’a Islamiya’s spiritual leader, “blind sheikh” Omar Abd al-Rahman, who is serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York City.
El Fagr said the jihadists described Rahman as a holy warrior who had sacrificed his life for the Egyptian nation and had been ignored by the Mubarak regime. They recalled that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi had promised to intervene and demand his release but had not done so.
If the sheikh was not freed, the jihadists said, they would burn down the U.S. Embassy.
Gama’a Islamiya, a group with historical links to al-Qaeda, is designated as a foreign terrorist organization under U.S. law. The 1993 truck bombing failed in its aim to bring down the World Trade Center and kill thousands of people, but the massive blast in the parking garage beneath the center did kill six people and injure more than 1,000.
The plot was reportedly financed by al-Qaeda 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and led by his nephew, Ramzi Yousef.
Rahman was convicted in 1995 of seditious conspiracy, conspiracy to conduct bombings and other offenses. (Yousef is also serving a life sentence in a U.S. federal prison.)
In late June, then president-elect Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood vowed in his first public speech to work for the release of Rahman, who is in his 70s.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded during an interview the following day that the evidence in the Rahman trial had been “very clear and convincing, and he was sentenced to life in prison, and we have every reason to back the process and the sentence that he received and will do so.”
Also voicing opposition to any calls to free Rahman were New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and lawmakers from New York. Homeland Security Committee chairman Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), called Morsi’s pledge “a disgraceful way for him to start his presidency” and urged President Obama to “make that point emphatically” when he meets with the Egyptian leader.