SANA, Yemen -- Hundreds of Yemeni protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Sana and started fires on Thursday, another eruption of violence in a series of protests sweeping the Middle East and elsewhere over an online trailer for a film mocking the Islamic prophet.
Four protesters were killed and more than 30 were injured, some of them severely, after security forces fired gunshots and lobbed tear gas into the air in an attempt to scatter the demonstrators, a Yemeni security source said on condition of anonymity.
Infuriated protesters smashed security office windows and broke past barriers, hurling stones at buildings and setting two cars on fire outside. Demonstrators tore down the American flag and lifted a white banner saying, “There is no god but Allah and his messenger is Muhammad.” Graffiti sprayed on the walls read, “For the prophet.”
"I went to this demonstration to defend my religion and to denounce this crime, which we consider a great violation against the divinity of Islam and its symbols," said protester Mohamed Ahmed.
Others demanded that the embassy be shuttered. “It is not the first time they insulted the Koran and Islam, and I think it is about time to close the U.S. Embassy and kick out its ambassador,” another demonstrator told The Times.
Witnesses said Yemeni security forces guarding the embassy had stepped aside at first, allowing protesters to breach the grounds before opening fire. Reaching the embassy gate, which is normally heavily guarded, typically requires passing both two armed vehicles and a checkpoint, making it difficult to pass. Protesters didn't enter the main offices of the embassy.
President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi ordered the Ministry of the Interior to establish a committee to investigate the clashes. Hadi also extended “sincere apologies to President Obama and to the people of the United States of America for the attack,” said Mohammed Albasha, spokesman for the Yemeni embassy in Washington.In a statement, Hadi blamed the attack on a “rowdy group” and vowed to see the perpetrators prosecuted.
The Yemeni president also alluded to remnants of an Al Qaeda-allied faction in referring to “conspiracies to derail Yemeni-American relations” being behind the “chaotic incident” at the embassy.
“These plans are intended to damage our relationship with the United States,” Hadi told the Yemen News Agency. “These groups have exploited the lack of security preparations.” He blamed the faulty security on divisions in security forces “due to the political crisis that has been active since early 2011.”
Official Islamist parties denounced the attacks, but also the film that triggered it.
“We call on all Arabs and Muslim leaders to use political pressure with the American government in order to put an end to hate speech against Muslims,” said Al Sayed Mohamed Qahatan, a leader of the Al Islah opposition party.
A controversial Islamist sheik, Abdul Majeed Zindani, issued an announcement in the wake of the attack demanding that Yemeni authorities not “allow any foreign forces to occupy any inch of its land,” an apparent reference to U.S. forces now stationed in Yemen.
The Yemeni embassy in Washington said no casualties had been reported in the attack. A Western diplomat told CNN that State Department officials said all embassy personnel were safe and accounted for in different locations. Another American official in Yemen who was not authorized to speak publicly told the news network that everyone there was OK.
U.S. Marines were guarding a hotel near the embassy that is occupied by Americans. More protests are expected Friday, as Islamists announced it would be “Friday of Defending the prophet Muhammad.”
The attack in Sana was the third such assault on an American diplomatic mission this week. Libyan militants assaulted and burned the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday, leading to the deaths of four Americans, just hours after Egyptian protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
The protests have broken out in reaction to a movie filmed in Southern California that mocks Muhammad as a bloodthirsty sexual deviant. Outrage spread after an online trailer for the film was dubbed in Arabic and aired on Egyptian television.
-- Zaid Ali in Sana, Reem Abdellatif in Cairo and Emily Alpert in Los Angeles