The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three American members of his staff were reportedly killed Tuesday in riots sparked by outrage over a film backed by Terry Jones, the Gainesville pastor whose burning of Korans last year led to days of rioting in Afghanistan.
The deaths were reported by Libyan officials after attacks on U.S. diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, and Cairo, Egypt. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged the film, which conservative Muslims said denigrated Islam and its holiest figure, Mohammad, as the likely cause, although she made it clear she felt "there is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."
Jones and other backers of the film, Muhammad, were unapologetic about the role they may have had in triggering the violence.
"The fact that angry protesters climbed the wall at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo today, ripped down the American flag and tore it apart 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," Jones said Tuesday in a statement released before the death in Benghazi was confirmed. "It further illustrates that they have no tolerance for anything outside of Mohammad."
Organizers of the Egyptian protest said they'd begun planning the event last week when a controversial Egyptian Christian activist who lives in the United States, Morris Sadek, released a trailer for Muhammad.
The 14-minute clip, which Sadek first posted on his Facebook page Sept. 5, attacked basic tenets of Islam and suggested that the religion had spread only because the prophet told those he encountered to "pay extortion or die" if they didn't convert.
Islam forbids any depiction of Mohammad because he's seen as someone whose greatness can't be replicated. In documentaries about his life, he's often portrayed as a ray of light. That someone would mock the prophet is considered blasphemous.
Tuesday's film controversy came as Jones announced he planned to put the prophet on trial in what he called International Judge Mohammad Day.
In a video announcing the "trial," Jones, wearing a black shirt with the word "Infidel" printed on it in Arabic, said that he planned to charge the prophet "with being a false prophet, thus leading 1.6 billion people astray."
The U.S. embassy in Egypt had tried to pre-empt the attack, issuing a statement hours earlier that condemned "the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others." Embassy officials also called Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for the conservative Islamist Nour party, in which they apologized for the film and Jones' call, but Bakkar said he was unwilling to call off the protest, and embassy employees were sent home early.
No casualties were reported at the protest in Egypt, in which demonstrators hauled down the flag, tore it to pieces and burned it. Among the chants yelled toward the U.S. embassy was, "Take a picture, Obama, we are all Osama," a reference to Osama bin Laden, who planned and financed the 9/11 attacks and whom U.S. commandoes killed on May 2, 2011.
"The American people must know we do not accept any kind of insult of the prophet, peace be upon him," Bakkar said, adding that he nevertheless opposed pulling down the American flag.
Sharif Abdel Meniem, 29, who helped organize the Cairo protest, said he planned the demonstrations "because the Americans did not take a real stand against" Jones' call.
"The prophet does not have a hand in the 9/11 attacks," he said as chanters yelled, "The prophet's army has arrived."
That the protest fell on Sept. 11 wasn't lost on those participating.
"This anniversary provokes the United States," said Islam Mustafa, 23, a student. "But (Americans) are the ones provoking us."
A 2010 call by Jones to burn Korans on the ninth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, alarmed the U.S. military, which feared the move would endanger the lives of American troops fighting Islamist extremists in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Although Jones called off the burning, thousands of Afghans encouraged by the Taliban set fire to tires in the streets of the Afghan capital Kabul and other cities and chanted "Death to America." Police in a province near Kabul fired shots in the air to disperse a crowd trying to storm the governor's residence.
Jones' congregation went ahead with a Koran burning in March 2011, triggering protests across Afghanistan after video of the ceremony was posted on the Internet. In the most violent protest, hundreds of protesters stormed a U.N. compound in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, killing seven foreigners, including four Nepalese guards.
Information from the Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.