TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) – Libyans protesting the Prophet Mohammad cartoons set fire to the Italian consulate in Benghazi on Friday in a riot that killed at least 10 people, an Italian diplomat said.
The death toll was higher than that of any other riot against the caricatures during the past two weeks of demonstrations across the Muslim world.
The rioters hurled rocks and bottles at the consulate in Benghazi, and then charged into its compound and set fire to the building. Police with Kalashnikov rifles fired live ammunition and tear gas at the more than 1,000 demonstrators, but failed to disperse them until about six hours later.
Libya condemned the attack on embassy property and, in an exceptional move, broadcast pictures of the violence. State television showed firefighters extinguishing the blaze in the consulate, cars burning, rioters hurling stones, and wounded men being carried to ambulances.
The riot appeared to be a reaction to Italian Cabinet Minister Roberto Calderoli, who said this week he would wear a T-shirt printed with the cartoons satirizing Prophet Mohammad that have provoked protests across the Muslim world. His remark was widely published in Libya.
Calderoli actually wore the T-shirt underneath a suit on Friday. Hours later, while the riot was taking place, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi asked for Calderoli’s resignation.
Libyan security officials said 11 people, including police officers, were killed or wounded. The officials declined to say how many people had died.
Italian diplomat Domenico Bellantone said between 10 and 11 people had died, and all were Libyan, either police or protesters. He spoke in Tripoli after the Libyan interior minister had briefed the Italian ambassador on the riot.
Earlier, Italian consular official in Benghazi, Antonio Simoes-Concalves, had said nine protesters were killed and several more wounded. Libya’s second biggest city, Benghazi is 400 miles (640 kilometers) east of Tripoli.
After clashing with police outside the consulate, the rioters burst into the grounds and started a fire on the first floor, the Italian Foreign Ministry said in Rome.
State television showed two cars ablaze, another two gutted by fire, and a police vehicle with its rear window smashed.
Police fired shots to try to disperse the crowd, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Simoes-Goncalves told The Associated Press in Rome the police officers were not able to control the crowd, despite firing bullets and tear gas. “They are still continually firing,” he said at 2100 GMT, speaking on the telephone from inside the consulate where he was holed up. “They haven’t managed to block them.”
About 11 p.m. local time (2200 GMT) the rioters dispersed. “The situation is calm now,” said diplomat Bellantone, adding that police had cordoned off the consulate.
The television did not show police firing, but it screened blue uniformed police officers carrying Kalashnikov rifles in the street outside the consulate. Nor did the channel show the rioters setting fire to the building, but the newscaster told viewers that “some protesters sneaked into the compound and set part of the consulate on fire.”
Simoes-Goncalves said the rioters had torched four cars in the consulate compound and also broke windows. No Italians were injured during the riot, the Italian Foreign Ministry said.
The Italian consulate is the only Western diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
There was no demonstration outside the Italian Embassy in Tripoli, a possible indication of greater state control in the capital. Politics is tightly controlled in Libya, and open dissent is rare.
The Italian ambassador to Tripoli met late Friday with the Libyan interior minister “who expressed the condemnation of his government for the acts of violence occurring in Benghazi,” the Italian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Numerous riots and demonstrations have broken out in Muslim countries in recent weeks over 12 cartoons on the Prophet Mohammad that first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September. They were republished in many other European newspapers earlier this month.