J. Christopher Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya, who was killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, eastern Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012. (State Department)
(CBS/AP) Libyan officials said Wednesday that U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens was among four Americans killed in an attack by Muslim protesters on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi the previous evening.
"I do condemn the cowardly act of attacking the US consulate and the killing of Mr Stevens and the other diplomats," Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur said on his Twitter account. "Amb. Stevens was a friend of Libya and we are shocked at the attacks on the U.S. consulate."
Abushagur said in a subsequent tweet: "I condemn these barbaric acts in the strongest possible terms. This is an attack on America, Libya and free people everywhere."
Only one death had been verified Tuesday night by U.S. officials, and the State Department had yet to confirm Stevens' death or the two others first reported Wednesday morning by the Reuters news agency. CBS News is seeking confirmation from U.S. officials.
The U.S. Embassy in Libya, in the capital city of Tripoli, would say only that officials were still trying to gather information on the attack in Benghazi, which an official called an "intense battle".
Regional security officials in Benghazi said four U.S. consulate staffers were killed when the angry mob, which gathered to protest a U.S.-made film that ridicules Islam's Prophet Muhammad, fired guns and burned down the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
The security officials said Stevens died of suffocation, while two U.S. Marines sent to Benghazi when the clash erupted were shot and killed by well-armed protesters. The American whose death was confirmed on Tuesday also died of a gunshot wound.
According to his biography page on the U.S. Embassy's website, "Ambassador Stevens was the American representative to the Transitional National Council in Benghazi during the revolution," in Libya. Benghazi was the capital of rebel-held Libya during the uprising to oust Qaddafi.
Hours before the protest erupted in Benghazi, protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, tearing down and replacing the American flag with an Islamic banner.
Tuesday's attacks were the first such assaults on U.S. diplomatic facilities in either country, at a time when both Libya and Egypt are struggling to overcome the turmoil following the ouster of their longtime leaders, Muammar Qaddafi and Hosni Mubarak, in uprisings last year.
There have been indications in recent months that radical, armed Islamic groups have gained a foothold in Libya since the fall of the Qaddafi regime.
One of the groups to emerge in post-revolution Libya, Ansar al-Sharia, claimed responsibility Wednesday for the attack in Benghazi, which has been condemned by the country's new government.
The protests in both countries were sparked by outrage over the film ridiculing Muhammad, which was produced by an American-Israeli in California and being promoted by an extreme anti-Muslim Egyptian Christian campaigner in the United States. Excerpts from the film, dubbed into Arabic, were posted on YouTube during the summer.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed on Tuesday evening the first death of a State Department officer had at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. She strongly condemned the attack and said she had called Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif, "to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya."
Clinton expressed concern that the protests might spread to other countries. She said the U.S. is working with "partner countries around the world to protect our personnel, our missions, and American citizens worldwide."
"Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet," Clinton said in the statement released by the State Department. "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."
Sam Bacile, an American citizen who said he produced, directed and wrote the two-hour film, has gone into hiding, The Associated Press reports.
He told the AP from an undisclosed location that he had not anticipated such a furious reaction.
"I feel sorry for the embassy. I am mad," Bacile said.
The incidents also led to an exchange between the campaigns of Republican standard bearer Mitt Romney and President Obama, over the nature of a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo following the attack there.
In Benghazi, a large mob stormed the U.S. consulate, with gunmen firing their weapons, said Wanis al-Sharef, an Interior Ministry official in Benghazi. A witness said attackers fired automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at the consulate as they clashed with Libyans hired to guard the facility.
Outnumbered by the crowd, Libyan security forces did little to stop them, al-Sharef said.
The crowd overwhelmed the facility and set fire to it, burning most of it and looting the contents, witnesses said.
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