BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — A mob enraged by a film ridiculing Islam's prophet killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in a fiery attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. President Barack Obama strongly condemned the violence, vowed Wednesday to bring the killers to justice and tightened security at diplomatic posts around the world.
The attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens — the first U.S. diplomat to die in the line of duty since 1979 — came on Tuesday's 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist strike and presented a new foreign policy crisis for the United States in a region trying to recover from months of upheaval.
Libya's interim president, Mohammed el-Megarif, apologized for what he called the "cowardly" assault on the consulate, which also killed several Libyan security guards in the eastern city. Just before the Benghazi violence, protests also flared in Egypt, where crowds angry over the film climbed the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and tore down an American flag, which they replaced briefly with a black, Islamist flag.
The protests were touched off by an obscure movie made in the United States by a filmmaker who calls Islam a "cancer." Video excerpts posted on YouTube depict the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a madman in an overtly ridiculing way, showing him having sex and calling for massacres.
But the brazenness of the embassy assaults — the first on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Libya and Egypt — were signs of the lawlessness that has taken hold in the two countries after revolutions ousted their autocratic secular regimes and upended the tightly controlled police state. Islamists have emerged as powerful forces, and security forces have largely broken down.
In Libya, the volatility is further compounded by the wide availability of heavy weapons and the numerous armed militia factions that remain more powerful than security forces.
Stevens, 52, died as he and a group of embassy employees went to the consulate to try to evacuate staff when the mob of protesters, including gunmen armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade, attacked.
The crowd, which numbered several thousand strong, moved on the consulate Tuesday evening, firing in the air outside the compound. The consulate is a one-story villa located in a fenced garden in downtown Benghazi. A small contingent of Libyan security forces protecting the facility also fired in the air, trying to intimidate them, said Wanis el-Sharef, the deputy interior minister of Libya's eastern region.
But faced with the mob's superior size and firepower, the Libyan security withdrew, el-Sharef said. Gunmen stormed the building, looted its contents and torched it, he said.
By the end of the assault, much of the building was burned out and trashed. On Wednesday, Libyans wandered freely around the burned-out building, taking photos of rooms where furniture was covered in soot and overturned. Walls were scrawled with graffiti.
Details of how the Americans were killed were still being pieced together Wednesday. But according to al-Sharef's account, two distinct attacks took place.
Al-Sharef said Stevens and a consulate staffer who had stayed behind in the building were killed in the initial attack on the consulate.
The rest of the staff successfully evacuated to another building nearby, preparing to move to Benghazi Airport after daybreak to fly to the capital, Tripoli, he said.
Hours after the storming of the consulate, a separate group of gunmen attacked the other building, opening fire on the more than 30 Americans and Libyans inside. Two more Americans were killed and 32 wounded — 14 Americans and 18 Libyans, he said.