The US Ambassador to Libya and three other embassy staff have been killed in a rocket attack on their car in the city of Benghazi.
Christopher Stevens and three of his colleagues were apparently being driven to a safer place, as the consulate building was stormed by furious militants denouncing an American-made film which insulted the prophet Muhammad.
President Obama has strongly condemned the killings, calling it an “outrageous attack”, and ordered an increase in security at US embassies and diplomatic buildings around the world.
“Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers”, he said. “They exemplified America’s commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives.”
Libya’s president Mohammed Magarief has apologised to the United States over the incident, insisting that “no-one will escape from punishment and questioning”. He promised that all foreigners in the country would be protected.
The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton paid tribute to Ambassador Stevens had been “committed to advancing US values and interests, even when that meant putting himself in danger.”
She named one of the other staff members killed as Sean Smith, a foreign service information mangement officer. The names of the other two won’t be revealed until their families have been informed.
An official in Benghazi said the US embassy had sent a military plane to take the bodies to the capital Tripoli, from where they would be flown home to the United States.
Mr Stevens, who was 52, was a career diplomat who had worked in the US foreign service for more than twenty years. He was one of the first American officials in Benghazi during the uprising against the former Libyian dictator Muammar Gadhaffi.
He returned to the country in May after President Obama nominated him to the ambassadorship. He was based in Tripoli, but had apparently gone to Benghazi ahead of plans to open an American cultural centre, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The rocket attack on his car followed fierce clashes between Islamic militants and security forces, amid a violent protest over the film, which they deemed blasphemous.
Armed gunmen attacked the US consular compound on Tuesday evening, clashing with Libyan security forces and forcing them to withdraw as they came under heavy fire. “We were not prepared for the intensity of the attack”, admitted Supreme Security Committee spokesman Abdel-Monem Al-Hurr.
The incident followed a protest in neighbouring Egypt by thousands of demonstrators: some scaled the walls of the US embassy, tore down the American flag and burned it during a similar protest over the film.
The Libyan incident proved far more serious: Security forces returned fire but were overwhelmed. “One American official was killed and another injured in the hand. The other staff members were evacuated and are safe and sound,” Libya’s deputy interior minister Wanis al-Sharif told reporters.
The film that sparked the demonstration is said to have been produced by a 52-year-old American real estate developer from California called Sam Bacile, eho told the Wall Street Journal he had raised $5 million from a group of donors and shot the film in California last year.
The two men are described as having anti-Islamic views. A 14 minute trailer of the low-budget movie had appeared on YouTube in July, translated into Arabic.
Last week it came to far wider attention after an Egyptian-American Copt, Morris Sadek, posted a blog post in Arabic and an English-language newsletter and claimed to have plans to screen the film. Clips were picked up and broadcast by news media in Egypt.
Terry Jones, the controversial Florida preacher who sparked violence in Afghanistan in 2010 after he threatened to burn a copy of the Koran, is said to be promoting it. In a statement, he said the film was called “Innocence of Muslims”, and claimed it was not aimed at attacking Muslims. “The movie further reveals in a satirical fashion the life of Muhammad”, he added.
The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned against any effort to spread the violence: “Some have sought to justify this vicious behaviour as a response to inflammatory material posted on the internet,” she said.
“The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”
The fear now is that this could trigger far wider anti-American protests around the world. There is fear out there, and there is uncertainty. Neither are ingredients designed to calm tempers, and restore anything resembling equilibrium.