Updated at 1 p.m. ET: Protesters angry over an obscure film critical of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad stormed the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, on Thursday, as unrest that led to the deaths of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya spread to other countries in the region.
Yemeni security forces fired into the air as demonstrators reached the embassy’s grounds, according to The Associated Press and Reuters. The New York Times reported that protesters managed to set fire to a building inside the compound but were forced by security forces to pull back after trying to take furniture and computers.
A local hospital official said the body of one person had been brought in from the scene of the clashes and medics were trying to determine the cause of death, Reuters reported. A security source told the news agency that at least 15 people were wounded, some from bullets, and 12 people were arrested.
A Yemeni official said that order had since been restored, but the situation on the ground appeared to remain fluid.
“Initial reports are that all embassy personnel are safe and accounted for,” a U.S. State Department official told NBC News.
President Barack Obama ordered his administration to do whatever is necessary to protect Americans abroad.
Speaking at a re-election campaign rally in Golden, Colo., Obama said he and his aides had been in contact with other governments “to let them know they’ve got a responsibility to protect our citizens.”
President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi offered “a personal apology” to Obama over the incident and ordered a swift investigation.
Libya’s deputy interior ministry Hadi blamed “mob-like groups” bent on harming Yemeni-U.S. relations for the attack and promised to ensure they are properly punished, state news agency Saba said.
An Obama administration official told NBC News: “We are doing everything we can to support our mission in Yemen. We’ve had good cooperation from the Yemeni government which is working with us to maintain order and protect our facilities and people. These protests appear to be motivated by the (anti-Islam) film.”
By early afternoon local time, the crowd amassed outside the embassy compound in Sanaa appeared to be in the thousands, with witness estimates ranging from about 4,000 to as many as 10,000. The demonstrators smashed windows of security offices outside the embassy and burned cars.
Yemeni protesters burn US flag
Before storming the U.S. Embassy compound in Sanaa Thursday, the demonstrators removed the embassy’s sign on the outer wall and set tires ablaze. Once inside the compound, they brought down the U.S. flag and burned it.
Film on al-Jazeera television showed demonstrators jumping up and down on the parapet of the building and scaling the walls.
The young demonstrators shouted “we redeem, Messenger of God,” Reuters reported. Others held aloft banners declaring “Allah is Greatest.”
Yemen is home to al-Qaida’s most active branch and the United States is the main foreign supporter of the Yemeni government’s counterterrorism campaign. The government on Tuesday announced that al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader in Yemen was killed in an apparent U.S. airstrike, a major blow to the terror network.
The United States, eager to help Yemen recover from the upheaval that put the state on the verge of collapse, has said it would provide $345 million in security, humanitarian and development assistance this year, more than double last year’s aid.
Meanwhile in Egypt, protesters hurled stones at a police cordon around the U.S. Embassy in Cairo after climbing into the embassy and tearing down the American flag. The state news agency said 13 people were injured in violence that erupted late on Wednesday.
In Jordan, a fanatic group and a youth movement have called for big demonstration in front of the American embassy in Amman, NBC News’ Moufaq Hhatib reported. Jordanian security forces said they will try to prevent them from reaching the embassy and have heightened security measures in the area. The embassy has issued a warning to Americans in Jordan to avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place.
The unrest followed Tuesday night’s attack on the U.S. Consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, where Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other State Department officers were killed.
President Barack Obama said the killers would be tracked down and ordered two destroyers to the Libyan coast.
The protesters’ anger was triggered by the amateurish anti-Islamic film, a trailer for which appeared on YouTube, although U.S. authorities said Wednesday that they could not rule out the possibility that al-Qaida-inspired Islamist militants had already planned the deadly attack in Libya’s second city to coincide with Sept. 11.
Former Navy SEAL among dead in Libya
Two of the three Americans killed along with Stevens during the assault in Benghazi have been identified.
On Thursday, the Boston Globe quoted Katie Quigley of Marblehead, Mass., as saying that her brother Glen Doherty, 42, had died in the attack on the U.S. facility.
“He was on security detail and he was protecting the ambassador and also helping the wounded” at the time of his death, she told the newspaper.
Doherty was a former Navy SEAL who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq, his sister said. He had been working for a private security firm when he was killed, she told the paper.
“I never thought he’d be another victim of September 11,” the Globe quoted her as saying.
Foreign Service information officer Sean Smith was also killed in the attack on the American compound, the State Department said Wednesday. The identity of the fourth victim has yet to be released, pending notification of next-of-kin, officials said.
There were protests and threats in several other countries in the Middle East.
On Thursday, the Asaib al-Haq militia threatened U.S. interests in Iraq over the film; the group carried out some of the most prominent attacks on foreigners during the Iraq War.
In the Iranian capital, Tehran, Agence France-Presse reported that around 500 demonstrators converged on the Swiss Embassy, which handles American interests in the country in the absence of formal diplomatic relations. Police held back the protesters, but the compound had already been evacuated as a precaution, AFP said.
About 1,000 Bangladeshi Islamists tried to march on the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka after protests earlier in the week outside U.S. missions in Tunisia, Sudan and Morocco.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the making of the movie a “devilish act” but said he was certain those involved in its production were a very small minority.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul appealed to Afghan leaders for help in “maintaining calm” and Afghanistan ordered the YouTube site shut down so Afghans would not be able to see the film.
In Jordan, the U.S. Embassy in Amman has issued a warning for Americans there. Islamist groups have called for big demonstrations in front of the American embassy during Friday prayers and Jordanian authorities have heightened security measures in the area.
Many Muslim states focused their condemnation on the film and will be concerned about preventing a repeat of the fallout seen after publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. That episode touched off riots in the Middle East, Africa and Asia in 2006 in which at least 50 people died.
Obama speaks to leaders of Egypt, Libya
On Wednesday night, Obama spoke to the presidents of Egypt and Libya and urged them to continue working with the United States to ensure the safety of diplomats, the White House said.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi promised Egypt “would honor its obligation to ensure the safety of American personnel,” the White House said.
Obama told Morsi that while “he rejects efforts to denigrate Islam … there is never any justification for violence against innocents.”
On Thursday, Morsi said he supported peaceful protest but not attacks on embassies.
“Expressing opinion, freedom to protest and announcing positions is guaranteed but without assaulting private or public property, diplomatic missions or embassies,” he said during a visit to Brussels.
Morsi also pledged to protect foreigners in Egypt.
Challenge for US
The developments in the Arab world, and especially in Egypt, are shaping up to be a major political and foreign policy challenge for Obama in this election year.
Egypt has been a cornerstone of American policy in the Middle East ever since it became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
But after popular protests helped oust Egypt’s longtime pro-U.S. dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the country’s role in American regional policy was thrown into question.
In an interview with Telemundo on Wednesday, Obama said that while he does not believe Egypt is an ally of the United States, he also does not consider the country an enemy.
“I think that we are going to have to see how they respond to this incident,” Obama said.
The Obama administration was unhappy with Egypt’s apparently tepid initial response to the assault on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday.
During a separate call on Wednesday, Obama thanked Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf for his condolences over the deaths of the four Americans in Benghazi.
The White House said the two leaders agreed to “work together to do whatever is necessary to identify the perpetrators of this attack and bring them to justice.”
On Thursday, Libya’s deputy interior minister Wanis Sharif told Reuters that four arrests have been made in the investigation into the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. He said the four men were suspected of helping instigate the events at the compound, but provided no other details.