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Protesters in Syria torch 2 embassies

Muslims' outrage over prophet cartoons swells

DAMASCUS -- Thousands of Syrians enraged by caricatures of Islam's Prophet Mohammed torched the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus yesterday, the most violent in days of furious protests by Muslims in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

In Gaza, Palestinians marched through the streets, storming European buildings and burning German and Danish flags. Protesters smashed the windows of the German cultural center and threw stones at the European Commission building, police said.

Iraqis rallying by the hundreds demanded an apology from the European Union, and the leader of the Palestinian group Hamas called the cartoons ''an unforgivable insult" that merited punishment by death.

Pakistan summoned the envoys of nine Western countries in protest, and even Europeans took to the streets in Denmark and Britain to voice their anger.

At the heart of the protest are 12 caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed 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 depictions of the prophet.

Aggravating the affront, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark has said repeatedly he cannot apologize for his country's free press. But other European leaders tried yesterday to calm the storm.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said she understood Muslims were hurt, though that did not justify violence.

''Freedom of the press is one of the great assets as a component of democracy, but we also have the value and asset of freedom of religion," Merkel told an international security conference in Munich.

The Vatican deplored the violence but said certain provocative forms of criticism were unacceptable. ''The right to freedom of thought and expression . . . cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers," the Vatican said in its first statement on the controversy.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of Britain, who has criticized European media for reprinting the caricatures, said there was no justification for the violence in Damascus. ''We stand in solidarity with the Danish government in its call for calm and its demand that all its diplomats and diplomatic premises are properly protected. It's incumbent on the Syrian authorities to act in this regard."

But Denmark and Norway did not wait for more violence. With their embassies in Damascus up in flames, the foreign ministries advised their citizens to leave Syria without delay.

No diplomats were injured in the Syrian violence, officials said. But Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds of Sweden, which along with Chile has an embassy in the same building, said she would lodge a formal protest over the lack of security.

In Santiago, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the Chilean Embassy in Damascus was also torched but nobody was injured.

The demonstrations in Damascus began peacefully with protesters gathering outside the building housing the Danish Embassy. But they began throwing stones and eventually broke through police barricades. Some scrambled up concrete barriers protecting the embassy, climbed into the building, and set a fire.

''With our blood and souls we defend you, O Prophet of God!" the demonstrators chanted. Some removed the Danish flag and replaced it with a green flag printed with the words: ''There is no god but God and Mohammed is the messenger of God."

Demonstrators moved on to the Norwegian Embassy about 4 miles away, also setting fire to it before being dispersed by police using tear gas and water cannons, which were also used to force protesters away from the French Embassy.

Anger swelled in Europe, too. Young Muslims clashed briefly with police in Copenhagen, the Danish capital, and about 700 people rallied outside the Danish Embassy in London.

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