By Maha Ellawati.
Benghazi, 11 September:
The American representative office in Benghazi was stormed and set on fire today during protests over the reported airing on US TV of a video attacking the Prophet Mohammed. The US flag was reportedly ripped down, burned and replaced with the black flag of Islam. Reuters reports that its correspondent saw three injured members of the security forces being taken away in ambulances. A US security official was also reported injured.
There were similar violent protests at the US embassy in Cairo, where the US flag was also ripped down and burned.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened in Benghazi. One of the demonstrators told the Libya Herald that the protest was entirely peaceful until the police and local security forces tried to end it by firing into the air. That angered the protestors who then turned on the police, the demonstrator claimed. One of them, he said, then went to his car, got out a rocket propelled grenade launcher and fired at a police vehicle. However, he missed and the RPG hit the building on Venezia Street instead.
Other witnesses give a very different account. One, a Benghazi bank official who did not want to be named, told the Libya Herald that the protestors were all Salafists who had turned up to the building intent on causing maximum damage, bringing guns and RPGs with them. He claimed members of the Islamist militia Ansar Al-Sharia were among them. He said that fierce clashes between them and security forces lasted for five hours. He confirmed that the protestors had entered into the building.
According to him, the police guarding the office had allowed the protestors into the consulate. They then forced those inside to leave before trying to set the building on fire.
However, according to the deputy interior minister responsible for eastern Libya, Wanis Al-Sharif, no one was in the consulate when it was stormed.
Confirmation of clashes was given by the local spokesman for the Supreme Security Committee, Abdel-Monen Al-Hurr. He said that there had been “fierce clashes between the Libyan army and an armed militia outside the US consulate”. He said that US security guards inside the building “fired at the militia as they were trying to enter and attack it.”
It is being widely reported in Benghazi that one person died in the disturbances. “One American staff member has died and a number have been injured in the clashes,” claimed Hurr. However, both demonstrators and witnesses say that this is not true.
Reuters have reported that following the attack, looters took equipment from the building, including air-conditioners, desks, chairs and even washing machines.
At the beginning of June, a bomb exploded outside the office in an attack that was seen as retaliation for the killing of Al-Qaeda’s Libyan deputy commander Abu Yahya al-Libi by a US drone strike. By coincidence, Al-Qaeda acknowledged the killing today.