CAIRO -- The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were reported killed as a mob sacked the U.S. Consulate in eastern Libya in a rage over an anti-Muslim video produced in the United States, according the State Department.
Early Wednesday morning, President Obama released a statement: "I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers. 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 concluded his statement saying, "The brave Americans we lost represent the extraordinary service and sacrifices that our civilians make every day around the globe. As we stand united with their families, let us now redouble our own efforts to carry their work forward."
Wanis al-Sharif, Libya's deputy minister of the interior, told the Associated Press that Stevens and three others had died as the crowd torched the consulate in Benghazi hours after demonstrators scaled the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in protest over the anti-Muslim video. A Twitter message from Libya's deputy prime minister, Mustafa Abu Shagur, condemned the death of Stevens and the other American personnel killed in the attack.
The protesters in Benghazi set fire to the consulate and fired guns into the air in protest over the film, according to Reuters reporters on the scene. Looters reportedly grabbed desks, chairs and even washing machines from the empty compound.
Egyptian protesters had earlier gathered at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in protest over a video that they said mocked the prophet Muhammad, claiming it had been made by Egyptian Coptic immigrants in the U.S.
The Cairo protesters pulled down the U.S. flag, and in its place raised a black flag that read: "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet" before Egyptian security forces sought to tame the crowd.
As night fell, protesters continued to gather outside the embassy in one of the biggest demonstrations in the city since the fall of Hosni Mubarak's government early last year. Security forces surrounded the embassy compound to prevent protesters from again storming it, though some demonstrators remained on the wall, waving black flags.
As many as 2,000 demonstrators rallied outside the embassy in a gathering called by the conservative Islamic Salafist movement.
Before the rally, the private Al Nas television channel, run by Salafists, played some of the video posted on YouTube, which a host and a commentator said insulted Islam. The video shown on the channel refers to Muhammad and his followers as "child lovers." It also shows the prophet speaking to a supposed Muslim donkey, asking him whether he loves women.
The channel's enraged host and a commentator then demanded to know how Islam could be treated in such a debasing way.
The video has been promoted online by Florida preacher Terry Jones, whose 2011 burning of a Koran triggered riots in Afghanistan. In a statement, Jones called the assault on the embassy in Egypt proof that Muslims "have no tolerance for anything outside of Muhammad."
Nader Bakar, a spokesman of the Al Nour party, the political arm of the Salafist movement, denied any involvement in the uproar.
"We were there for a couple of hours in a peaceful protest," said Bakar, who had called for the demonstration the day before. "We are against this movie being made to defame the prophet. The U.S. Embassy understood this, and they issued a statement condemning hateful rhetoric."
The embassy in Cairo published a statement online saying, "The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns 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. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."
The mood during the protests at the embassy was a reminder of the volatility of politics in post-Mubarak Egypt, where, more than ever, rumor can stir people into a frenzy. Suspicion of involvement by Coptic Christians shows how tension between Muslims and Christians still burns. Christians make up about 10% of Egypt's population.
"Many of the people here haven't even seen the movie," said Mostafa Nageh, a youth who attended the protest. "Most people came out to protest just because they heard that a video insulting the prophet was made in the U.S."
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that the breach of the embassy wall "came up pretty quickly" and involved a "relatively modest group of people, but caught probably us and the Egyptian security outside by some surprise."
-- Ned Parker
Photo: U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. Credit: White House