State Department: Attack on Benghazi consulate ongoing

State Department: Attack on Benghazi consulate ongoing

The State Department confirmed that there is an ongoing attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the second U.S. diplomatic post to be attacked today in that region. One American has been killed in the attack, according to Libyan interior ministry.

"We can confirm that our office in Benghazi, Libya has been attacked by a group of militants.  We are working with the Libyans now to secure the compound," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement late Tuesday afternoon. "We condemn in strongest terms this attack on our diplomatic mission."

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation of the death of the American citizen.

An armed mob set fire to the consulate building in Benghazi, the birthplace of the Libyan revolution, following a similar incident earlier today in which a mob of protesters surrounded the U.S. embassy in Cairo, breached the compound walls, and tore down the American flag to replace with the flag of al Qaeda.

A State Department official told The Cable earlier today that they estimated between 1,500 and 2,000 people showed up to protest the Cairo embassy but that only 5 or 6 had actually made it into the compound. All U.S. personnel in Cairo are uninjured and accounted for, the official said. Nuland said that the intruders were now in police custody.

"In Cairo, we can confirm that Egyptian police have now removed the demonstrators who had entered our Embassy grounds earlier today," she said.

Several early reports states that both protests were sparked by anger among some ultra-conservative groups over the impending release of a film they deemed offensive to Islam. Several reports today states the film "Muhammad, Prophet of the Muslims" was a collaboration between U.S. pastor Terry Jones, who gained attention by burning copies of the Koran, in conjunction with some Egyptian Copts living in the United States.

The U.S. embassy in Cairo released a statement on that incident that identified it as an act of religious incitement and noted that the attack happened on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, although not suggesting that the date played a role in the timing.

"The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions," the statement said. "Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."

The State Department is also not ready to say whether or not the Libya attack is related to the Cairo attack.  "We cannot confirm any connection between these incidents," a State Department official said.

Earlier Tuesday, as the attack on the Cairo embassy was ongoing, Nuland told reporters at the daily briefing that the Cairo protests were "modest" compared to what State has seen in the past.

"It sounds like — and I don’t have full details — that this came up pretty quickly, relatively modest group of people, but caught probably us and the Egyptian security outside the embassy by some surprise," she said. "I would urge you not to draw too many conclusions because we’ve also had some very positive developments in our relationship with Egypt."

UPDATE: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released the following statement late Tuesday evening.

I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today.  As we work to secure our personnel and facilities, we have confirmed that one of our State Department officers was killed.  We are heartbroken by this terrible loss.  Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who have suffered in this attack.  This evening, I called Libyan President Magariaf to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya.  President Magariaf expressed his condemnation and condolences and pledged his government’s full cooperation.   Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet.  The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.  Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation.  But let me be clear:  There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.  In light of the events of today, the United States government is working with partner countries around the world to protect our personnel, our missions, and American citizens worldwide.