NBC's Richard Engel reports from Cairo, Egypt, where a large group of protesters have been gathering since Tuesday's attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that left the U.S. ambassador to Libya dead, as well as three others.
By NBC News and wire reports
Updated at 7:30 a.m. ET: The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed after protesters angry over a film that ridiculed Islam's Prophet Muhammad stormed the U.S. consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi.
"I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens," President Barack Obama said Wednesday in a statement. "Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers."
Earlier, three Libyan officials told The Associated Press that Stevens was killed Tuesday night when he and a group of embassy employees went to the consulate to try to evacuate staff. The protesters were firing gunshots and rocket-propelled grenades.
A large mob had stormed the U.S. consulate, with gunmen firing their weapons, said Wanis al-Sharef, an Interior Ministry official in Benghazi. A witness said attackers fired automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at the consulate as they clashed with Libyans hired to guard the facility.
Outnumbered by the crowd, Libyan security forces did little to stop them, al-Sharef said.
The crowd overwhelmed the facility and set fire to it, burning most of it and looting the contents, witnesses said.
"I heard nearly 10 explosions and all kinds of weapons. It was a terrifying day," a witness who refused to give his name because he feared retribution told the AP.
But the circumstances surrounding the death of Stevens and the other Americans were not immediately clear.
"I have directed my Administration to provide all necessary resources to support the security of our personnel in Libya, and to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the globe," Obama's statement said.
"While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants," he said.
Stevens was typically based in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, but was apparently visiting Benghazi for the opening of an American cultural center there, The Wall Street Journal said.
NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports on the death of the American ambassador to Libya in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The envoy is the first American ambassador killed on duty since 1979.
According to the biography posted on the U.S. embassy’s website, Stevens was previously the American representative to the Transitional National Council in Benghazi during the war to oust longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The diplomat, who spoke Arabic and French, previously had "several diplomatic assignments in the Middle East and North Africa."
Stevens was the first U.S. ambassador killed during an overseas assignment since Adolph Dubs was shot dead during a kidnapping attempt in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1979.
Obama called Stevens "a courageous and exemplary representative of the United States."
"The brave Americans we lost represent the extraordinary service and sacrifices that our civilians make every day around the globe," he said.
Protests in Cairo
Demonstrations also broke out Tuesday in Egypt, where protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, and tore and replaced the American flag with an Islamic banner. Demonstrations continued outside the U.S. facility Wednesday afternoon.
Tuesday's attacks were the first such assaults 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, Gadhafi and Hosni Mubarak, in uprisings last year.
The protests in both countries were sparked by outrage over a film ridiculing Muhammad. It produced by an Israeli filmmaker living in California and was being promoted by an extreme anti-Muslim, Egyptian Christian campaigner in the United States. Excerpts from the film dubbed into Arabic were posted on YouTube.
Protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and pulled down the American flag during a protest over what they said was a film produced in the United States that insulted the Prophet Muhammad. NBC's Richard Engel reports.
The 14-minute trailer of the movie, posted on the website in an original English version and another dubbed into Egyptian Arabic, depicts Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a madman in an overtly ridiculing way, showing him having sex and calling for massacres.
The website's guidelines call for removing videos that include a threat of violence, but not those that only express opinions. YouTube's practice is not to comment on specific videos.
Muslims find it offensive to depict Muhammad in any fashion, much less in an insulting way. The 2005 publication of 12 caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper triggered riots in many Muslim countries.
In Washington, U.S. military officials told NBC News that "no decisions have been made" to provide any American military support or assist in possible evacuation of U.S. personnel from Libya.
"It's way too early in the process," one official told NBC. "No decisions have been made."
The events appeared to underscore how much the ground in the Middle East has shifted for Washington, which for decades had close ties with Arab dictators who could be counted on to muzzle dissent.
The diplomatic crisis in Libya and Egypt quickly turned political as the Obama and Romney campaigns traded statements overnight on the crisis sparked by a controversial film about the Prophet Muhammad that ignited violence, including the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.
Obama's administration in recent weeks had appeared to overcome some of its initial caution following the election of an Islamist Egyptian president, Muhammad Morsi, offering his government desperately needed debt relief and backing for international loans.
"The victory in the Libyan elections of nationalist rather than fundamentalist forces, and the rise to power in Egypt of the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood has marginalized the militant strain of Muslim activism ..." Juan Cole, a professor of history and a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan, wrote on his blog.
"One way the fundamentalist vigilantes can hope to combat their marginalization and political irrelevance in the wake of the Arab Spring is to manufacture a controversy that forces people to side with them. I suspect that is what they were doing in Egypt and Libya, in front of the US embassy in Cairo and at the rump consulate in Benghazi," Cole wrote.
Assault on embassy in Cairo
Hours before the Benghazi attack, hundreds of mainly ultraconservative Islamist protesters in Egypt marched to the U.S. Embassy in downtown Cairo, gathering outside its walls and chanting against the movie and the United States. Most of the embassy staff had left the compound earlier because of warnings of the upcoming demonstration.
"Say it, don't fear: Their ambassador must leave," the crowd chanted.
One protester, Hossam Ahmed, said he was among those who entered the embassy compound and replaced the American flag with a black one. He said the group has since removed the black flag from the pole and laid it instead on a ladder on top of the wall.
"This is a very simple reaction to harming our prophet," said another, bearded young protester, Abdel-Hamid Ibrahim.
On Tuesday, Egypt's prestigious Al-Azhar mosque and seat of Sunni learning condemned a symbolic "trial" of the prophet organized by a U.S. group including Terry Jones, a Christian pastor who triggered riots in Afghanistan in 2010 by threatening to burn the Koran.
But it was not immediately clear whether it was the event sponsored by Jones, or the video, called "Innocence of Muslims," that prompted the melee at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, and possibly the violence in Libya.
Filmmaker intended movie to be provocative
Sam Bacile, a 56-year-old California real estate developer who identifies himself as an Israeli Jew and who said he produced, directed and wrote the two-hour film, said he had not anticipated such a furious reaction.
Speaking by phone to the AP from an undisclosed location, Bacile, who went into hiding Tuesday, remained defiant, saying Islam is "a cancer" and that he intended his film to be a provocative political statement condemning the religion.
"Islam is a cancer, period," Bacile repeatedly said in a solemn, accented tone.
Bacile said the film was produced in English and he does not know who dubbed it in Arabic. The full film has been shown once, to a mostly empty theater in Hollywood earlier this year, he said.
Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-born Christian in the United States known for his anti-Islam views, told the AP from Washington that he was promoting the video on his website and on certain TV stations, which he did not identify.
Both depicted the film as showing how Coptic Christians are oppressed in Egypt, though it goes well beyond that to ridicule Muhammad — a reflection of their contention that Islam as a religion is inherently oppressive.
For several days, Egyptian media have been reporting on the video, playing some excerpts from it and blaming Sadek for it, with ultraconservative clerics going on air to denounce it.
NBC News staff, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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