Sunday, February 5, 2006

BEIRUT — A mob burned and ransacked the Danish Consulate in Beirut yesterday in anger over newspaper cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, prompting the interior minister to resign over his inability to prevent the violence.

The rioters, many of them Syrians, also attacked a Maronite church and scuffled with security forces, burning police and army vehicles. The State Department held the Syrian government responsible for similar actions a day earlier in Damascus.

Muslims worldwide are enraged at a series of cartoons that a Danish newspaper ran in September, depicting Muhammad in the company of veiled women and as a terrorist with a bomblike turban. Islam forbids any portrayal of its prophet as idolatry.



Many of yesterday’s protesters arrived in Beirut in buses and carrying flags. They engaged Lebanese security forces in running street fights with rocks and sticks, burning or capturing police and emergency vehicles before storming the Danish Consulate in the majority-Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyah.

“There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger,” the rioters chanted, smashing their way into the 10-story commercial building and lighting fires that quickly engulfed the structure.

Several protesters were trapped in the upper floors and jumped to avoid the flames, suffering severe injuries. Others were injured by flying rocks, tear gas and smoke inhalation.

Denmark had reportedly cleared all staff from the building a day earlier. The Copenhagen government yesterday warned its citizens in Lebanon to remain indoors and to leave the country when they could, saying, “The situation in Beirut is not under control.”

Protesters looted and burned the Danish Embassy a day earlier in Syria, which controlled Lebanon by force until April. That prompted the United States and some European governments to criticize the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“We will hold Syria responsible for such violent demonstrations, since they do not take place in that country without government knowledge and support,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Witnesses to yesterday’s riot reported hearing many of the attackers speaking in Syrian and Palestinian accents, raising suspicions that Syria orchestrated much of the violence to destabilize its former vassal state.

A police official told Reuters wire service that 76 of 174 rioters arrested yesterday were Syrians. The others comprised 38 Lebanese, 35 Palestinians and 25 stateless Bedouins.

The protesters also attacked a Maronite church near the consulate in Beirut, straining fragile Christian-Muslim relations. Rocks damaged St. Maroun Church and several church vehicles were destroyed during the morning’s Mass.

Hundreds of Christians flooded the streets around the church last night, waving flags of civil war-era militias and promising retaliation.

One church elder said that the attack meant a war between Christians and Islam. “We love America; we love George Bush,” he said. “We love Israel and today we, the Lebanese Christians, love the Danes.”

Sunni Muslim leaders condemned the rioting.

“This has nothing to do with Islam at all,” Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told Future television. “Destabilizing security and vandalism give a wrong image of Islam. Prophet Muhammad cannot be defended this way.”

Interior Minister Hassan al-Sabaa, also a Sunni, submitted his resignation at an emergency Cabinet meeting.

“We had two solutions: either to try to keep people away [from the consulate] as we did, or to use weapons against them,” he said, according to Reuters. “I am a person who would never order the use of arms against the Lebanese.”

There were also demonstrations yesterday in the Palestinian territories and in Iraq, where about 1,000 people protested outside a mosque in the western city of Ramadi.

Iraqi Transport Minister Salam al-Maliki said his country has decided to cancel its contracts with Danish firms and reject any offers of reconstruction money from Copenhagen, the Associated Press reported.

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