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Mideast leaders call for restraint as film protests continue

A Libyan follower of Ansar al-Shariah Brigades, burns the U.S. flag during a protest in front of the Tibesti Hotel, in Benghazi, Libya, Sept. 14, 2012, as part of widespread anger across the Muslim world about a film ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

Mohammad Hannon/AP

Amid fears that violence would escalate dramatically after Friday prayers, Muslim demonstrators marched on U.S. embassies in cities across the Middle East Friday, venting their fury over a blasphemous film lampooning the Prophet Mohammed.

In Tunis, Tripoli, Khartoum and Cairo, there were deaths as security forces clashed with thousands of demonstrators, but in many other cities the protests were small or peaceful.

After days of worsening violence, there was a concerted effort Friday to de-escalate the crisis that began Tuesday with a deadly assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Religious and political leaders called for restraint and understanding.

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Egypt's new Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, delivered a nationally televised speech denouncing violence. Islam requires that "[we] protect our guests and their homes and places of work," Mr. Morsi said, adding that the killing of Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, was a greater offence before God than an attack "on the Kaaba," referring to Islam's holiest site, in Mecca. Mr. Morsi's speech came after days of silence that so irked U.S. President Barack Obama that he publicly questioned whether Egypt and its Muslim Brotherhood President was an ally.

At a sombre ceremony at Andrews Air Force base, just south of Washington, Mr. Obama praised the dead ambassador and his slain colleagues as their bodies were flown home.

"Four Americans, four patriots. They loved this country. They chose to serve it, and served it well," Mr. Obama said. "They had a mission they believed in. They knew the danger, and they accepted it. They didn't simply embrace the American ideal, they lived it; they embodied it."

In some cities where protesters gathered, clashes ended in gunfire, deaths and with buildings on fire. In Tunis, at least three demonstrators died and dozens were wounded. U.S. embassy vehicles were set ablaze, and the American school was looted. In Khartoum, both the U.S. and German embassy compounds were invaded by demonstrators as security forces did little to intervene. Demonstrators hoisted a black Islamic flag bearing the words: "There is no God but God and Mohammed is his Prophet."

More U.S. Marines were airlifted to help defend embattled embassies. After sending 50 to the Libyan capital earlier in the week, the Pentagon ordered another group to Saana, Yemen, where demonstrators attempted – for the third day – to storm the embassy.

But demonstrations in Jordan, Qatar and elsewhere were peaceful even as protesters carried signs denouncing the blasphemous film and, sometimes, America. Some imams, at Friday prayers, spoke out against the film but also warned against retaliatory violence.

Calls for a "million-man march" in Egypt by some hard-line Muslim Brotherhood leaders fizzled. Instead, only a few hundred headed for the U.S. embassy and they were kept blocks away by barbed-wire barriers and riot police. However, in the Sinai, militants attacked a UN peacekeeper post where Western troops are deployed. Two Colombian soldiers were reported injured.

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There were also small demonstrations in London, Jerusalem, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Far larger crowds protested in Tehran, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Protesters burned an effigy of Mr. Obama in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. In southern Afghanistan, a Taliban attack on a U.S. base left two Marines dead, but it was unclear whether that assault was part of the broader anger over the low-budget, American-made film.

In eastern Libya, the airspace was closed for the second day, amid reports that U.S. surveillance drones were circling about the burned-out consulate and searching for the heavily armed militants who attacked it. Bursts of anti-aircraft fire were reported.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More


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