The United States ambassador to Libya and three embassy staff were killed after a mob angered over an amateur American-made short film that mocks Islam's Prophet Muhammad stormed the U.S. consulate in the eastern city Benghazi late Tuesday.
Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, a 21-year career U.S. foreign service officer and one of the most experienced U.S. envoys in the region, had taken up his post in the capital, Tripoli, in May.
US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens
Served as U.S. ambassador to Libya since May
Held two earlier postings in Libya
Previous assignments in Israel, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia
Worked as an international trade lawyer before joining the Foreign Service in 1991
Taught English in Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1983 to 1985
His death was the first of an American envoy abroad in more than 20 years. The U.S. State Department reported that U.S. Foreign Service Information Management Officer, Sean Smith, was also killed. It did not identify the two other victims.
U.S. President Barack Obama Wednesday condemned the killing of the four Americans.
"They exemplified America's commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives," Obama said in a statement. He described Stevens as a "courageous and exemplary representative of the United States" who had selflessly carried out his duties throughout the Libyan revolution.
Stevens was widely admired by the Libyan rebels for his support of their uprising that overthrew longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
"He risked his own life to lend the Libyan people a helping hand to build the foundation for a new, free nation," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement. "He spent every day since helping to finish the work that he started. Chris was committed to advancing America’s values and interests, even when that meant putting himself in danger."
The president of Libya's national assembly, Mohammed Magarief, apologized Wednesday "to the United States, the people and to the whole world for what happened."
Libya's Deputy Interior Minister Wanis al-Sharif told reporters that an armed group attacked the premises in an "almost suicidal" mission. He said the U.S. consulate was at "fault" for not taking adequate precautions. But further details of the incident were unclear.
"Innocence of Muslims" Movie
Excerpts of the film were posted on YouTube in English and Arabic
The film depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a caricature
Reportedly financed by expatriate members of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority group
Promoted by Florida-based Christian Pastor Terry Jones, who burned a Quran in his church
Earlier reports said several dozen gunmen from the Islamist group Ansar al Sharia attacked the U.S. consulate with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, then set it on fire. The Associated Press reported that Stevens and his colleagues were killed when he went to the consulate to evacuate staff.
In Egypt, protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, tore up an American flag and replaced it with an Islamic banner. The demonstrators there - mainly ultraconservative Islamists - continued their protest action through the early hours of Wednesday.
The protests coincided with the 11th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
The mobs were sparked by outrage over the film that U.S. media said was produced by Israeli-American Sam Bacile and financed by expatriate members of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority group. Coptic leaders from around the world denounced the film.
Clips from the movie in English and Arabic recently posted on YouTube show the Prophet Muhammad as a child of undetermined parentage and portray him as a buffoon who advocates child abuse and extramarital sex, among other overtly insulting claims.
The Associated Press reported that Bacile - a real estate developer in California - went into hiding Tuesday. He described Islam as a "cancer," and said he intended his film to be a provocative political statement condemning the religion.
The video gained international attention with its promotion by controversial Florida-based Christian Pastor Terry Jones, who said Tuesday the film was not designed to attack Muslims but to show the "destructive ideology of Islam."
Jones triggered deadly riots in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 by threatening to set fire to copies of the Quran and then burning one in his church.
Tuesday's twin assaults were the first 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.
Video clip: Libya
It is not clear if the two incidents were coordinated.
Benghazi, a stronghold of Islamist extremists and cradle of the revolution that saw strongman Gadhafi captured and killed last year, has seen a wave of violence in recent months, including attacks on Western targets, bombings of military buildings and the killings of army and security officers.
Egypt's Al Ahram newspaper reported that a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, the main Egyptian Islamist group, urged the U.S. government to prosecute the "madmen" behind the video.
Also Tuesday, Egypt's prestigious Al-Azhar mosque condemned a symbolic "trial" of the Prophet Muhammad organized by a U.S. group, including Jones.
At least 2,000 unarmed demonstrators had gathered Tuesday outside the embassy in the Egyptian capital, including Salafist Muslims and soccer fans who were involved in the political protests that brought down the former government.
By nightfall, a group of protesters had breached the wall, destroying the U.S. flag and replacing it with an Islamic banner. An embassy official told VOA no guns were drawn and no shots were fired during the incident. He said all the employees on the compound were safe.