- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 2, 2006

TEL AVIV — Palestinian gunmen forced the closing of a European Union office in Gaza City and a German national was briefly abducted in the West Bank yesterday amid growing Muslim fury over caricatures in European newspapers poking fun at the prophet Muhammad.

A masked spokesman for the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades told reporters in Gaza that the armed band planned to kidnap more foreigners, prompting European diplomats and aid workers to begin leaving the Palestinian territories.

In Europe, at least two more newspapers published the cartoons yesterday, bringing the total to at least nine newspapers in two days as defiant editors turned the issue into a test of press freedom. An editor in France and one in Jordan lost their jobs for printing the drawings.

Across Europe and the Muslim world, political leaders felt compelled to take sides. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a close U.S. ally, condemned the publication of the drawings while U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan argued through a spokesman that press freedom “should always be exercised in a way that fully respects the religious beliefs and tenets of all religions.”

The cartoons, first published in a Danish newspaper in September and reprinted in a Norwegian newspaper last month, offend Muslims by satirizing Muhammad, in one case showing him with a turban shaped like a bomb. For Muslims, any depiction of the prophet is forbidden.

Editors of Denmark’s Jyl lands-Posten newspaper said they first commissioned the sketches to test whether the cartoonists would “succumb to self-censorship” on a Muslim issue. As Muslim protests grew, more and more newspapers have printed the cartoons in defiance, further fueling the anger.

In the West Bank yesterday, Palestinian gunmen searched apartments and other hotels in an effort to kidnap foreigners. English teacher Christoph Kasten, 21, was seized in the city of Nablus but released into the custody of Palestinian police after less than an hour.

About 20 gunmen surrounded the European Union office in Gaza and threatened to harm citizens of countries with newspapers that published the cartoons, which include France, Germany and Norway.

“Any citizens of these countries, who are present in Gaza, will put themselves in danger,” a Fatah-affiliated gunman told the Associated Press. “Any visitor of these countries will be targeted” if the countries don’t apologize.

Norway froze activities at an office just outside of Jerusalem, while the Danish foreign ministry urged its citizens to leave the West Bank and Gaza.

Hamas is planning a demonstration in Gaza today to protest the newspapers’ action, and some Muslim clerics reportedly called for “a day of wrath.” Religious leaders in Iraq also called for demonstrations after weekly prayers today.

After protests earlier in the week, the cartoons appeared in at least seven European newspapers on Wednesday, including France Soir and newspapers in Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.

Le Temps in Switzerland and Hungary’s Magyar Hirlap followed suit yesterday, the latter with a drawing showing an imam telling suicide bombers to stop because heaven had run out of virgins to reward them.

In Jordan, the newspaper Shihan carried some of the cartoons, saying it wanted to show how offensive they were. The Jordanian government threatened legal action, and the chief editor was promptly fired.

The editor of France Soir was also fired yesterday by the paper’s editor, an Egyptian, as a “sign of respect” for religious convictions.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy questioned the firing, saying, “We must defend freedom of expression, and if I had to choose, I prefer the excess of caricature over the excess of censure.”

But European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson criticized the repeated publication of the pictures as “throwing [fuel] onto the flames of the original issue.”

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