Wire services and reporters on the ground said that Stevens and the others were fleeing the consulate when a rocket-propelled grenade struck their vehicle. Al-Jazeera’s correspondent in Benghazi said the bodies of the dead had been taken to the Benghazi airport.
Stevens, a longtime Middle East hand in the State Department, was named ambassador to Libya in May. He had worked in Libya for a number of years, both before and after the fall of slain Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. The other dead were not identified in the White House statement issued Wednesday morning.
“Chris was a courageous and exemplary representative of the United States,” President Obama said in the statement. “Throughout the Libyan revolution, he selflessly served our country and the Libyan people at our mission in Benghazi. As ambassador in Tripoli, he has supported Libya’s transition to democracy. His legacy will endure wherever human beings reach for liberty and justice. I am profoundly grateful for his service to my administration, and deeply saddened by this loss.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the attack “in the strongest terms.” She said she had called Libyan President Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf “to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya.”
The violence in Benghazi followed protests in neighboring Egypt, where a group of protesters scaled the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday evening and entered its outer grounds, pulled down an American flag, then tried to burn it outside the embassy walls, according to witnesses. On Wednesday morning, a sit-in of several dozen protesters continued outside the Cairo embassy.
The attacks — apparently prompted by outrage over an amateur, anti-Muslim film made in the United States — are likely to prompt a deep rethinking of U.S. policy toward both Libya and Egypt, where the United States supported Arab Spring revolutions and has been instrumental in providing financial and diplomatic support for their newly-democratic governments. Local security officials in both countries appeared slow to provide protection for the American diplomatic installations, and have issued no firm statements explaining the violence or expressing strong concern.
The film, produced in the United States and posted online, denigrated the Islamic prophet Mohammed. In her statement, Clinton said that while she “deplores” any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, “there is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”
The crisis quickly spilled over into the U.S. presidential campaign, as Mitt Romney issued a brief statement saying he was “outraged” by the assaults. Romney then said “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn the attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
President Obama’s reelection campaign quickly responded in kind, saying “We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose the launch of a political attack.”
Both the Egyptian and Libyan governments condemned the violence outside the American diplomatic compounds. But the incidents raised the question of to what extent governments in countries where suspicions of the United States run high are willing or able to provide security for American diplomats.
The film that appears to have sparked the protests calls the prophet Muhammad a fraud and shows him having sex. A controversial Cairo television host, Sheikh Khaled Abdallah, aired clips from the video on an Islamic-focused television station on Saturday, and the same video clips were posted online on Monday.
A California real estate developer, Sam Bacile, who described himself as an Israeli Jew, said he made the film, which is called “The Innocence of Muslims.” Bacile had gone into hiding on Tuesday, but remained defiant in his condemnations of Islam, the Associated Press reported.
Stevens, who spoke Arabic and French, had described himself on the embassy’s Web site as “fortunate to participate in this incredible period of change and hope in Libya.”He was the U.S. representative to the Transitional National Council, the provisional government set up by Libyan rebels in Benghazi before Gaddafi was overthrown.
“When he’s not meeting with government officials or foreign diplomats, you can find Ambassador Stevens meeting with Libyan academics, business people, and civil society activists, exploring Libya’s rich archaeological sites, and enjoying Libya’s varied cuisine,” Stevens wrote on the site.
In Cairo, the security breach comes at an awkward time for broader relations between the United States and Egypt, as the new Egyptian government strives to convince the world that it is running a stable and safe country. A 120-person U.S. business delegation was just wrapping up a visit on Tuesday that had been intended to inspire more investment in Egypt. Many of their events were held inside the fortress-like embassy compound in central Cairo that was stormed on Tuesday night.
Relatively few embassy employees were inside when the protesters hopped the wall because many had gone home early, according to a U.S. official speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly about the developing incident.
Later in the evening, the Egyptian military sealed the entrances to the embassy to secure it from the ongoing protest, witnesses reported. Protesters were still outside the Cairo embassy early Wednesday, but Nuland later said that police had cleared the remainder.
A spokesman for the embassy said that Ambassador Anne Patterson was out of Egypt on unrelated business and that all embassy employees were “safe and accounted for.”
The security breach in Cairo appeared to catch both the United States and Egyptian security forces by surprise, even though the protest was announced in advance. Shortly before the protesters went over the wall, witnesses said, few Egyptian police or military officers were nearby.
“We are, obviously, working with Egyptian security to try to restore order at the embassy,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday. “We all want to see peaceful protests, which is not what happened outside the U.S. mission, so we’re trying to restore calm now.”
Local media estimated that about 2,000 people participated in the protest, though in video footage of the incident only about a dozen appeared to have scaled the embassy wall. The protesters on the wall replaced the U.S. flag with a black flag with an inscription that read, “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet.”
A spokesman for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi did not respond to telephone calls requesting comment. “The security of embassies and providing protection for diplomatic delegates is a responsibility of the utmost priority for official authorities in any country,” the Egyptian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Protests at the U.S. Embassy are a regular feature of life in Cairo, where many people are suspicious of the United States and resent it for its support for Israel. But no previous protests have actually breached the embassy compound.
The embassy is in central Cairo, just a few blocks from Tahrir Square, and is a complex of several buildings surrounded by high white walls. Usually, police check vehicles in the streets surrounding the embassy, and cars must pass through moveable barriers.
Many protesters at the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday said they were associated with the Salafist political parties al-Nour and al-Asala.
Organizers at the embassy protest told the Associated Press that they’d begun planning the protest last week when a controversial Egyptian Christian activist who lives in the United States, Morris Sadek, started promoting Bacile’s film. Depicting the prophet at all is considered deeply offensive by Muslims.
“We are speaking out and will never be tolerant toward any curses for our prophet,” said Moaz Abdel Kareem, 37, who had a long beard typical of followers of the Salafist movement and was carrying a black flag.
Earlier Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Egypt had condemned insults to religion, saying in a statement that “we firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
A spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Morsi is a member, said that the United States should do a better job of protecting Islam.
“It isn’t a matter of freedom of speech,” Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Gozlan said. “It’s a matter of a holy Islamic symbol.”
HaithamTabei in Cairo, and Michael Birnbaum and Ingy Hassieb in El-Arish, Egypt, contributed to this report.