BEIRUT, Lebanon – Muslims protesting caricatures of Islam’s prophet set fire Sunday to a building housing the Danish Embassy in Lebanon as security forces fired tear gas in an attempt to stop the protesters.
Thousands of protesters took part in the protest but only a small group of Islamic extremists tried to break the security barrier, prompting troops to fire tear gas and water cannons to disperse them, said the official.
Troops also fired bullets into the air and over the protesters’ heads. Demonstrators attacked policemen with stones and set fire to several fire engines, witnesses said. Black smoke was seen billowing from the area. They also burned Danish flags.
Security officials said at least 18 people were injured, including policemen, fire fighters and protesters. Witnesses saw at least 10 people taken away by ambulance.
A security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media, said embassy staff had evacuated the building two days ago in anticipation of protests. Some 2,000 army troops and riot police were deployed around the building.
The Danish Foreign Ministry urged Danes to leave Lebanon as soon as possible.
The violence in Lebanon came a day after thousands of protesters in neighboring
Syria set fire to the Danish and Norwegian embassies in the most violent of furious demonstrations by Muslims in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
Twelve caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad first published in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten in September and reprinted in European media in the past week. One depicted the prophet wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse. The paper said it had asked cartoonists to draw the pictures because the media was practicing self-censorship when it came to Muslim issues.
The drawings have touched a raw nerve in part because Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.
Lebanese Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani denounced the violence, saying there were infiltrators among the protesters trying to “harm the stability of Lebanon.” Speaking on Future TV, he appealed for calm and said there were some who were trying to exploit the protests to cause trouble and “distort the image of Islam.”
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fuad Saniora also urged calm.
“Those who are committing these acts have nothing to do with Islam or with Lebanon,” said Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. “This is absolutely not the way we express our opinions.”
Saniora suggested some in Lebanon may have been inspired by what happened in Syria. “It is as if (the Syrian protests) were a lesson to some in Lebanon to do the same,” he told Future TV.
The trouble in Lebanon threatened to take a sectarian spin as protesters stoned the nearby St. Maroun Church, one of the city’s main Maronite Catholic churches, and private property in Ashrafieh, a Christian area near Beirut’s commercial district. Muslim clerics were seen trying to stop the protesters.
The demonstrators also attacked policemen with stones and set fire to several fire engines, witnesses said. Black smoke was seen billowing from the area. They also burned Danish flags.
Justice Minister Charles Rizk, speaking on LBC television, called on those who hold influence with the protesters to help end the upheaval.
“What is the guilt of the citizens of Ashrafieh of caricatures that were published in Denmark? This sabotage should stop,” said Rizk, a Christian.
Any tension with sectarian flavor is a sensitive issue in Lebanon, where Muslims and Christian fought a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.