backs Muslims over cartoons as thousands voice anger worldwide
By David Rennie, Europe Correspondent, Julian Isherwood in Copenhagen and Jack Barton
America sided with tens of thousands of Muslims who protested worldwide yesterday about cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published in European newspapers.
In its first comment on the furore, the State Department said: "These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims."
Answering a reporter's question, its spokesman, Kurtis Cooper, said: "We all fully respect freedom of the press and expression but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatred in this manner is not acceptable."
Crowds of Muslims answered calls for "an international day of anger" over the cartoons - one showing Mohammed with a turban in the shape of a bomb - which were first published in Denmark last September.
Fiery sermons were preached in mosques in several European cities during Friday prayers.
A Danish imam, Ahmed Abu Laban, told worshippers in Copenhagen: "In the West freedom of speech is sacred; to us, the Prophet is sacred."
Mullah Krekar, a radical imam living in Norway, was quoted by the Dagbladet daily as saying: "These drawings are a declaration of war."
But other Muslim community groups called for moderation and calm. Norway's Islamic Council said in a statement: "Muslims in Norway feel violated twice in this case - first through the caricatures then by the Norwegian flag being burned."
The largest protests were in Sudan and the Palestinian territories.
An imam in Gaza City told 9,000 worshippers that those behind the drawings should have their heads cut off. Protesters in Ramallah chanted: "Bin Laden, our beloved, Denmark must be blown up."
About 10,000 demonstrators, including Hamas gunmen firing in the air, marched through Gaza City to the Palestinian legislature, where they climbed on to the roof and waved Hamas banners.
"We are ready to redeem you with our souls and our blood, our beloved Prophet," they chanted. "Down, down Denmark."
Before dawn, Palestinian militants threw a pipe bomb at a French cultural centre in Gaza City and many Palestinians started boycotting European goods, especially those from Denmark.
Foreign diplomats, aid workers and journalists began pulling out of Palestinian areas because of kidnapping threats against some Europeans. Gunmen in Nablus briefly kidnapped Christopher Kasten, 21, a German teaching English at a local school. Palestinian police rescued him unharmed.
In Sudan, protests at the cartoons attracted as many as 15,000 people. Politicians then led the crowds in a march on the United Nations offices in Khartoum and called for holy war against any move to send a UN force to Sudan's war-ravaged Darfur region.
In Iraq, thousands of people took to the streets after Friday prayers. Christians said they feared retaliatory attacks.
In the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, more than 150 Muslim extremists stormed an office building housing the Danish embassy. They pelted a Danish coat of arms with eggs then tore down a Danish flag and burnt it.
The 12 cartoons were first printed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in a protest by what one of the artists involved called "self-censorship" by western artists in the face of Islamic anger.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister, launched a diplomatic offensive to quell Muslim protests over the caricatures, telling foreign ambassadors in Copenhagen that he needed their help to prevent the crisis from growing out of control.
But he said: "A Danish government can never apologise on behalf of a free and independent newspaper."
Denmark's intelligence service expressed fears that far-Right extremists were trying to create "a conflict situation" after the radical Dansk Front Network called a demonstration to protest at the burning of Danish flags in the Middle East.
Some Muslim ambassadors expressed anger that the Danish government could go no further, repeating earlier distaste at any "expression, action or indication that attempts to demonise groups of people on the basis of their religion or ethnic background." Jyllands-Posten has already apologised for having caused offence to Muslims but not for printing the caricatures and exercising its rights of freedom of speech.
Since September the cartoons have been reprinted in more than a dozen newspapers in France, Germany, Norway, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and other nations, provoking protests against Europeans of all nationalities. The editor of a Norwegian paper apologised for publishing them and in France the managing editor of France-Soir was sacked for printing the 12 cartoons this week.
Philippe Douste-Blazy, the French foreign minister, said: "It is not normal to caricature a whole religion as an extremist or terrorist movement." But the extreme reaction to the cartoons "would suggest the caricaturists were right," he added.