TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A hardline Muslim leader blamed for encouraging last week’s violent protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia fled through a police cordon surrounding one of the capital’s main mosques on Monday, as the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia faulted local security measures around the embassy as “inadequate” and asked they be increased.
Friday’s protest degenerated into violence and looting, with cars burned in the embassy parking lot and classrooms at a nearby American school trashed and looted. A U.S. flag was torn down and replaced with a black banner.
The protest — like others around the world — was carried out by demonstrators angry over a low-cost film made in the United States that insults the Prophet Muhammad.
Seif-Allah Ben Hassine, one of the reported leaders of the protests who is believed to be linked to an Islamist group in Libya, told followers gathered inside the El Fateh mosque in Tunis on Monday that the demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy was meant to be peaceful, and he blamed the government and police for the violence.
Outside, hundreds of security forces surrounded the mosque, but an Associated Press reporter who was inside later saw Ben Hassine escape with hundreds of followers as they all ran through the security lines together.
A police officer at the scene said the group made it through the cordon following negotiations with authorities, but provided no details. The officer wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be identified.
Ben Hassine is believed to be the head of the Tunisian branch of Ansar al-Shariah — a suspect in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last week that left U.S. Ambassador Christ Stevens and three colleagues dead.
Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki issued a video statement condemning the attack in Tunis and violent protests elsewhere.
“Tunisians do resent these extremists for hijacking the image of a people who have throughout history valued moderation, pluralism and tolerance,” Marzouki said Monday. Addressing “the people of the United States,” Marzouki said that “no idea, no speech, no artistic or non-artistic creation no matter how bad or offensive they might be could justify such unacceptable violence.”
In a meeting with Tunisia’s foreign minister, U.S. Ambassador Jacob Walles stressed that “the measures taken by Tunisian authorities on Sept. 14 were inadequate to protect the U.S. Embassy,” an embassy statement said. He asked for increased security for the embassy and the nearby American Cooperative School of Tunis, which was ransacked.
He said the Libyan ambassador’s death amounted to a “dramatic threat to the prospects of democracy and peace in the Arab world.”
The toppling in January 2011 of Tunisia’s autocratic leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was the spark that triggered the Arab Spring protests in the region.