Muslim protesters angered over an American film they said ridiculed Islam's Prophet Muhammad attacked the consulate in the city of Benghazi Tuesday night, killing U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, 52, and three other Americans. Stevens' car was attacked by a mortar as he was trying to flee the embassy. Libyans carried the ambassador's body to the hospital, but it was too late.
Witnesses say about 20 heavily armed militants fired automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at the embassy. The Libyans hired to guard the facility were quickly outnumbered and the building was then set on fire.
The State Department identified one of the other Americans killed as Sean Smith, a foreign service information management officer. The identities of the others were being withheld pending notification of next of kin.
A terror group affiliated with al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility. Officials said they believe it was a pre-planned attack, possibly timed to the Sept. 11 anniversary and may not have been linked to an anti-muslim movie that has angered the Arab world.
Just hours before the attack in Benghazi, there was also violence in Egypt. No one was killed there, but hundreds of mainly ultraconservative Islamist protesters marched to the U.S. embassy and began a demonstration. Dozens of protesters then scaled the embassy walls. They took down the American flag inside, tore it apart, and replaced it with black flag that contained a Muslim declaration of faith. Luckily, all embassy staff were warned to leave the building ahead of the protest.
On Wednesday night into Thursday morning, hundreds of demonstrators continued to gather near the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Police fired warning shots and tear gas, as some of the protesters threw rocks or Molotov cocktails and set fires. Authorities eventually pushed them back and away from the embassy. A few police officers and demonstrators suffered minor injuries. An unknown number of arrests were made.
The Pentagon ordered two warships to the Libyan coast in the aftermath of the attack, U.S. officials said. One destroyer, the USS Laboon, moved to a position off the coast, and the USS McFaul is en route and should be stationed off the coast within days.
The ships, which carry Tomahawk cruise missiles, do not have a specific mission, officials said. But they give commanders flexibility to respond to any mission ordered by President Barack Obama.
Mr. Obama has condemned the attack in Benghazi. He has ordered increased security to protect diplomatic personnel around world.
"I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi," Mr. Obama said in a statement. The four Americans, he said, "exemplified America's commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe."
"We will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people," the president said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed "profound sadness" over the deaths of the four U.S. personnel.
"[Christopher Stevens] risked his own life to lend the Libyan people a helping hand to build the foundation for a new, free nation. He spent every day since helping to finish the work that he started," said Clinton.
Libya's interim president, Mohammed el-Megarif, apologized to the United States for the attack, which he described as "cowardly."
The film that has incited the attacks was produced by 56-year-old California real estate developer Same Bacile, who identifies himself as an Israeli Jew.
The two-hour film has been screened once in Hollywood. A 14-minute trailer of the film was posted on YouTube. It depicts Prophet Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and even shows him having sex.
Bacile is currently in hiding. He did respond to the attacks, saying, "Islam is a cancer." He was apologetic about the Americans killed in these attacks, but he criticized the security at the embassies.
Before Tuesday, five U.S. ambassadors had been killed in the line of duty, the last being Adolph Dubs in Afghanistan in 1979, according to the State Department historian's office.
In Southern California, the Muslim Public Affairs Council was quick to denounce the violence and the bloodshed in Libya and Egypt.
In a news conference, Dr. Maher Hathout said the rioting is a misguided and misdirected response to the film. He offered his "sincere and deep condolences" to the families of the victims.
Dina Duella, a Libyan American and teacher at Chapman University, was in Libya last year during the revolution and met Stevens briefly before he became ambassador. She said he was a supporter of the Libyan people.
"He wasn't your run-of-the-mill diplomat," she said. "He really was the roll-up-your-sleeves type of guy. He got to know so many people in Libya in all different cities and all different parts. He was very much loved. They considered him part of the change that was brought to the country."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.