NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Heavily armed militants used a protest of an anti-Islam film as a cover and may have had help from inside Libyan security in their deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate, a senior Libyan official said Thursday.
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As Libya announced the first four arrests, the clearest picture yet emerged of a two-pronged assault with militants screaming “God is great!” as they scaled the consulate’s outer walls and descended on the compound’s main building.
The rampage killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Eastern Libya’s deputy interior minister, Wanis el-Sharef, said a mob first stormed the consulate Tuesday night and then, hours later, raided a safe house in the compound just as U.S. and Libyan security arrived to evacuate the staff. That suggested, el-Sharef said, that infiltrators within the security forces may have tipped off the militants to the safe house’s location.
The attacks were suspected to have been timed to coincide with the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strike in the United States, el-Sharef added, with the militants using the film protest by Libyan civilians to mask their action.
Killed in the attack were Ambassador Stevens, information management officer Sean Smith, private security guard Glen Doherty and one other American who has yet to be identified.
El-Sharef said four people were arrested at their homes Thursday, but he refused to give any further details. He said it was too early to say if the suspects belonged to a particular group or what their motive was. Libya’s new prime minister, Mustafa Abu-Shakour, said authorities were looking for more suspects.
One of five private security guards at the consulate said the surprise attack began around 9:30 p.m. when several grenades that were lobbed over the outer wall exploded in the compound and bullets rained down.
The guard was wounded in the left leg from shrapnel. He said he was lying on the ground, bleeding and in excruciating pain when a bearded gunman came down the wall and shot him twice in the right leg, screaming: “You infidel, you are defending infidels!”
“Later, someone asked me who I was. I said I was the gardener and then I passed out. I woke up in hospital,” said the guard, who spoke to The Associated Press from his bed at a Benghazi hospital. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals and reprimands from his employers.
The violence has raised worries that further protests could break out around the Muslim world as anger spreads over the movie.
The movie, “Innocence of Muslims,” came to attention in Egypt after its trailer was dubbed into Arabic and posted on YouTube. The trailer depicts Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a madman in an overtly ridiculing way, showing him having sex and calling for massacres.
YouTube blocked access to the video on Wednesday.
Stevens and another American were killed in the consulate during the initial violence, as plainclothes Libyan security were evacuating the consulate’s staff to the safe house about a mile away, el-Sharef said. The second assault took place several hours later and targeted the safe house — a villa inside the grounds of the city’s equestrian club — killing two Americans and wounding a number of Libyans and Americans.
The crowd built at the consulate — a one-story villa surrounded by a large garden in an upscale Benghazi neighborhood — in several stages, El-Sharef said. First, a small group of gunmen arrived, then civilians angry over the film. Later, heavily armed men with armored vehicles, some with rocket-propelled grenades, joined and the numbers swelled to more than 200.
The gunmen fired into the air outside the consulate. Libyan security guarding the site pulled out because they were so outmanned. “We thought there was no way for the protesters to storm the compound, which had fortified walls,” he said.
Libyan security advised the Americans to evacuate at that point, but the advice was ignored, he said. There was shooting in the air from inside the consulate compound, he said.
At this point, el-Sharef continued, the crowd stormed the compound. The consulate was looted and burned, while plainclothes security men were sent to evacuate the personnel.
Stevens probably died of asphyxiation following a grenade explosion that started a fire, el-Sharef said, echoing what the Libyan doctor to whom Stevens’ body was taken told the AP on Wednesday.
As events continue to unfold in the Middle East, Muslim leaders in the Tri-State area have condemned the attacks.
“Sadly, the attack against our Ambassador Stevens was done by a thug,” Mohamed El Filali, Executive Director of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, told 1010 WINS. “It’s not a representation of Islam, of a county or of a group of people that would be sane. This is total insanity.”
NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said Wednesday that there is no immediate threat to New York City following the deadly attack in Libya, but said the department is watching closely.
Stevens, a 52-year-old career diplomat, is the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in an attack since 1979.
“We’re living in a very uncertain world,” Sir Mark Lyall Grant, British Ambassador to the U.N., told CBSNewYork’s Evan Bindelglass on Wednesday. “There are massive problems still and we saw that overnight with the tragic killing of the American Ambassador in Libya and other diplomats and also the ongoing violence in Syria, where more than 20,000 people have been killed and the Security Council is very divided.”
In a statement, the U.N. Security Council also condemned an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. The U.N.’s most powerful body urged Libyan and Egyptian authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice and ensure that diplomatic premises and personnel are protected as required by the Vienna conventions.
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