US Ambassador killed in Libya: chased to his death by a mob in the country he helped save

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Sep 12th, 2012
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By Richard Spencer, Middle East Correspondent and Areesh Saeed in Benghazi,telegraph.co.uk

Chris Stevens had travelled to Benghazi this week to open an American cultural centre, a fitting reminder of the friendships he forged there during the Libyan uprising against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

By Tuesday night, he was lying prostrate on the roof of the US consulate, dying from smoke inhalation, a victim of the terrible violence that freedom has unleashed in the country he loved and in the city that he had “helped save”.

He had been trying to escape the fumes that had enveloped the building after Islamic extremists attacked the compound with rocketpropelled grenades. Despite the best efforts of Libyan doctors to revive him, he would not survive.

Diplomats, politicians and security analysts were trying to work out which elements of that new Libya had killed him and why. Was it really because of a schoolboy-humour film showing men in fake beards making crude jokes about donkeys, religion and sex?

Or was it more calculated, a carefully planned assault intended as revenge for the killing in a US drone strike of the deputy leader of al-Qaeda, a Libyan jihadist? Perhaps an attack timed to coincide with the anniversary of September 11?

The evidence on the ground was grim. “Everything is completely burned. The building is black with soot and a lot of furniture has been stolen,” said Mounther al-Senussi, a neighbour, as he surveyed the damage to the consulate yesterday. “There are two embassy cars outside that have been razed to the ground. There were bullet-holes on the walls. Everything is so burnt I could not tell which room was which.”

The events that may have led to the carnage – and to the death of Mr Stevens – began with the broadcast earlier this week of clips from a forthcoming satire on the life of the Prophet Mohammed sarcastically entitled The Innocence of Muslims. The film, said to have been created by an Israeli-American, Sam Bacile, was slick in its way but its humour was crude. It showed the Prophet in a sexual position with his first wife, and then sleeping with another woman.

The original was in American-accented English, but the film was also dubbed into Egyptian Arabic – a version that was then uploaded on to the website of Morris Sadek, a virulently anti-Islam Egyptian Christian Copt, now based in the United States. It quickly spread throughout the Middle East.

As anger in the Muslim world grew, the US embassy in Egypt tweeted that it “condemned efforts to offend believers of all religions”. That was not enough to prevent an angry crowd from forming outside the building on Tuesday afternoon, made up in part of Salafis, followers of the purist strain of Islam particularly intolerant of heresy, and the angry young men who make up the heart of many demonstrations in Cairo.

Shockingly for one of the most sensitive – and fortress-like – US embassies in the world, neither the police nor the army, generally present in large numbers, intervened as some men climbed the wall.

One managed to rip down the American flag. After failing to set it alight, the crowd ripped it to shreds. It was replaced with a black flag bearing the Arabic inscription “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet” – a standard declaration of faith, but also a common banner of Islamist fighting groups.

Meanwhile, planning for the attack that would claim the life of Mr Stevens 600 miles to the west was well advanced. By Tuesday evening, an angry mob had gathered outside the compound of the US consulate in Benghazi.

Ostensibly, the “protest” was also over the film. But to call those involved protesters is probably wrong: even in Libya, protesters do not arrive with rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

One eyewitness told The Daily Telegraph yesterday how an armed group infiltrated the ordinary protesters and sounded a warning. They told those nearby to stay back, that they had guns. The warning was real.

As gunfire rang out, the American security team protecting Mr Stevens, who was on a short visit to the consulate from his usual base in Tripoli, decided that he and his staff should be moved from the main consulate building, to a second, safer building on the compound.

However, even as they did so, the Libyan security detail outside, outgunned and outnumbered, retreated – after already having suffered 10 men dead and injured, according to a Libyan official. The second, supposedly safer, building then came under fire too, from rocket-propelled grenades. At some point, the attackers managed to enter the grounds and set the building on fire.

As the building burned, Mr Stevens made a desperate attempt to make it to the roof, trying to reach fresh air and escape the smoke.

“Folks inside were fighting the fire inside and the attackers outside,” a Libyan official told The Daily Telegraph. “Chris Stevens and the others got separated trying to escape to the roof of the building.”

The events of the next few moments are unclear, but distressing photographs circulating last night appeared to show Mr Stevens and one of his colleagues – believed to be Sean Smith, a press aide – being carried away in the aftermath of the attacks.

Mr Stevens was rushed to hospital. Meanwhile, two other unnamed US officials lost their lives at some point during the firefight.

A Libyan doctor, Dr Ziad Abu Zeid, yesterday told how had he spent 90 minutes trying to revive Mr Stevens at the Benghazi Medical Centre. He died of severe asphyxia, giving rise to stomach bleeding. It is thought that his three colleagues all died of gunshot wounds.

Their job done, the mob dispersed. An indirect claim of both responsibility and irresponsibility came in the morning, in a rambling statement from a spokesman for Ansar al-Sharia, the extremist group most closely associated with this sort of violence.

“Mockery of Sharia and the Prophet should be met forcefully,” he said.

“This is a popular uprising where all Libyan people have come forward to make victorious the religion of Allah.”

There is no evidence that Mr Stevens or any of his colleague mocked sharia or the religion of Allah: indeed, their work last year helped Libya to throw off the shackles of a dictator who enthusiastically oppressed it.

A deputy interior minister, Wanis Sharif, tried vainly to say that pro-Gaddafi remnants were involved. Few believed him.

Most Libyans – who voted in recent elections to reject pro-democracy Islamic parties, let alone radicals – divided their blame between their own weak government and the forces seeking to undermine it. “We are so upset for what happened,” said Maher al-Senussi, an onlooker.

“Real Libyans cared about this guy, he was helping us. Believe me the majority are condemning this.”

Only two months ago, Mr Stevens sent an email describing how happy he was to have returned to a country “much more friendly” than when he was first stationed there under Col Gaddafi. “It is great to be back in the ’new Libya’, as people are saying,” he had said. It was a return that would claim his life.

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