World

New details in Libya as protests against US widen

4 held; Obama sends 50 Marines

People protesting an anti-Muslim film climbed a fence at the US Embassy in Sana, Yemen, Thursday, but were repelled by Yemeni security guards.
Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters
People protesting an anti-Muslim film climbed a fence at the US Embassy in Sana, Yemen, Thursday, but were repelled by Yemeni security guards.

BENGHAZI, Libya — Anti-American protests spread across the Mideast Thursday as new details emerged on Tuesday’s deadly attack on the US consulate here.

The mayhem that killed four US diplomatic personnel, including the ambassador, was actually two attacks — the first one spontaneous and the second highly organized and possibly aided by anti-American infiltrators of the young Libya government, a top Libyan security official said Thursday.

The account by the official, Wanis Sharif, given to a few reporters here, was the most detailed yet of the chaotic events on Tuesday in this eastern Libyan city that killed J. Christopher Stevens, the first US ambassador killed in more than 30 years.

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Sharif spoke as Libyan officials said at least four people were in custody and the other US victims were identified as Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty, both former Navy SEALs who were working as security officers.

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The Obama administration, which has vowed that the killers would be brought to justice, has sent 50 Marines and two warships to Libya, and the FBI has joined in the investigation.

The killings occurred amid a wave of anti-US protests convulsing the Middle East, inspired by an American-made inflammatory anti-Islamic video, ‘‘The Innocence of Muslims,’’ that has spread on the Internet in recent days since it was publicized in Egypt. Protests expanded Thursday to at least a half-dozen other countries, including Iran.

Sharif, a deputy interior minister, said Stevens and a second US diplomat, Sean Smith, were killed in the initial attack, which began as a disorganized but angry demonstration by civilians and militants outside the US Consulate Tuesday, the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The protest escalated into an assault by as many as 200 people, some armed with grenades, who set the building on fire.

The second wave, Sharif said, was hours later, when the consulate staff had been spirited to a safe house in a villa a mile away. At that point, a team of Libyan security officials were evacuating them into a convoy, guarded by Marines and Libyan security officials who had been flown from Tripoli to retrieve them.

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Sharif said the second attack was a premeditated ambush on the convoy by assailants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and who apparently knew the route the vehicles were taking. The other two Americans were killed in that assault, and at least 12 Americans and 18 Libyan security officials were wounded, Sharif said.

‘‘The first part was chaotic and disorganized. The second part was organized and planned,’’ he said. The ambushers in the second assault, he said, apparently ‘‘had infiltrators who were feeding them the information.’’

Parts of Sharif’s account were not consistent with what other Libyan witnesses have said, and his version has not been corroborated by US officials, who have said it remains unclear precisely how and where Stevens was killed. Many Libyans considered Stevens a hero for his support of their uprising last year against Moammar Khadafy.

Two Libyans who were injured while guarding the consulate said that contrary to Sharif’s account, there was no indication within the consulate grounds that a mass protest, including members of armed groups, had been brewing outside. One of the guards, who both spoke on condition of anonymity for their own personal safety, said he only realized the dangers around 9:30 p.m., when protesters crashed through the gate and ‘‘started shooting and throwing grenades.’’ The other guard said he had been drinking coffee inside the compound just before the attack, and it was so quiet ‘‘there was not even a single ant.’’

But it remains unclear precisely what US military firepower can do. If the attackers were not part of a larger, international plot, there are no obvious targets for US military retaliation.

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“These are not the kind of guys with training camps and caravans to hit,’’ said Michael W.S. Ryan, a specialist on Islamic militants at the Jamestown Foundation.

The worst of the video-inspired violence elsewhere on Thursday was in Yemen, where at least five Yemenis were killed as hundreds of protesters stormed the US Embassy and were repulsed by Yemeni security forces. The embassy’s staff, sensitive to the danger, had been safely evacuated hours before, and Yemeni leaders apologized to President Obama for the mayhem.

But some of the assailants were able to burn cars, plunder office equipment, including computers, burn a US flag, and hoist their own standard proclaiming fealty to Islam. Witnesses and Yemeni officials said at least 10 US Embassy vehicles had been damaged or destroyed.

By nightfall, witnesses said, smoke was still rising from the embassy compound in the eastern part of the capital, Sana, as a protest raged 400 yards away.

In Egypt, where the anti-American anger began Tuesday, protesters scuffled with police officers firing tear gas, and news agencies reported that as many as 200 people may have been hurt. Demonstrations were also reported outside US diplomatic facilities in Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia — where the police fired tear gas to disperse the crowds — and an anti-American protest was held in Gaza.

In Iran, where nearly all large protests must get government approval, witnesses and news reports said 500 people screaming ‘‘Death to America!’’ converged outside the Swiss Embassy, which handles US diplomatic interests, and were restrained by hundreds of police officers.

The authorities in Afghanistan, where deadly violence has chronically flared over perceived insults to Islam, scrambled to minimize the possibility that the offending video, which portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a perverted buffoon, could be viewed on the Internet and provoke new protests. Afghanistan officials said they had pressed for an indefinite suspension of access to YouTube, where the video, promoted by a shadowy melange of right-wing Christians in the United States, had received more than 1.6 million hits by Thursday.

The Yemen protests came hours after a Muslim cleric, Abdul Majid al-Zindani, urged followers to emulate the protests in Libya and Egypt, Sana residents said. Zindani, a onetime mentor to Osama bin Laden, was named a ‘‘specially designated global terrorist’’ by the US Treasury Department in 2004.