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Protests Over Cartoons Turn Violent in Lebanon

(Soundbite of crowd noise)


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

The furor over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad spread to Beirut today. Thousands of protesters rampaged through the city and set fire to the Danish consulate. It was a Danish newspaper that first published the caricatures, later reprinted elsewhere in Europe. Lebanese troops fired bullets into the air and used teargas and water canons to scatter the crowds. More than 20 people were reported hurt.

The Lebanese Cabinet called an emergency session. NPR's Deborah Amos was in Beirut today. She joins us now from Damascus, where rioters torched the Danish and Norwegian missions yesterday. Hello there, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

Hi, Deb.

ELLIOTT: Tell us more about what happened in Beirut today.

AMOS: Well, I started my day in Beirut this morning, and a demonstration was planned to begin at about 11 a.m., so protestors came by the busloads from all over the country. The crowd was angry, certainly, and determined to make a point, but for many this was a family event. There were women and children and teenagers who came to protest. No one expected the kind of violence that we saw later in the day.

According to the Lebanese security service, a small group of what they called Islamist extremists broke through the security lines outside the Danish consulate and set fire to the building. Then some of the crowd started to pelt a Christian church nearby with stones and smash cars and shops in the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafieh. I saw whole streets of parked cars with smashed windows.

Lebanese authorities blame it on outside agitators. They've arrest some 60 people. I was down on Beirut's main square today, and many Lebanese came up to me to say that they were very sorry for what had happened, especially the stoning of the Christian church. Lebanon's chief Muslim religious leader condemned the attacks, and there was a counter-demonstration tonight in the Lebanese capital.

However, I have to say that when we drove out of Beirut this afternoon, I did see groups of young men carrying heavy sticks on their way down to the city, and the army was out in full force to stop them. Tonight the Danish government has urged all of its citizens to leave Lebanon.

ELLIOTT: You know, one of the things that's baffling a lot of people is why all this is flaring up now. The cartoons of Muhammad were first published in Denmark back in the fall.

AMOS: It's true. It's all flared in about the last 10 days. I met a Dane today who was evacuated from Damascus to Beirut. Dr. Jan Nielsen(ph) runs the Danish Institute here, and he left the city last night after the Danish Embassy burned.

Now Dr. Nielsen said he thought another event was also feeding the anger. In October, an Arab delegation of ambassadors asked for a meeting with the Danish foreign minister, and they were rebuffed. That delegation was led by Egypt, so it was seen as a national insult. And as you know, Egypt was the first country to have those demonstrations.

ELLIOTT: Why did the Danish prime minister not want to meet with this group?

AMOS: He said it wasn't his affair. This was an issue about freedom of the press, and so when they asked for the meeting to try to sort things out, he said he would not meet with them.

ELLIOTT: Deb, what has the position been of Arab governments to these protests?

AMOS: Well, for one thing, the Arab League has demanded that Denmark close down the newspaper that printed the cartoons, and it's something Arab governments are quite used to doing when they don't like what's in the media and don't understand why European governments can't do the same.

Here is a telling comment from an Egyptian who wrote about Egypt's position, and I'm gonna quote here. Perhaps the Muslim governments who spearheaded the campaign led by Egypt felt this was a way, easy way, to burnish their Islamic credentials at a time when domestic Islamists are stronger than they've been in many years. Let's remember that this protest has taken off after a series of elections in Gaza, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq where Islamists have made a good showing. So it's possible that these governments are trying to look good to their population.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Deb Amos in Damascus, Syria. Thank you so much.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.