February 4, 2006

Syrians Torch Danish, Norway Embassies Over Cartoon

By Rasha Elass

DAMASCUS -- Several thousand Syrian demonstrators set the Danish and the Norwegian embassies on fire on Saturday to protest at the publishing of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad by European newspapers.

The protest marked an escalation in the Muslim world's uproar over the cartoons, which have been reprinted in a number of European publications. One depicted Prophet Mohammad wearing a turban resembling a bomb.

The fire badly damaged the Danish embassy's building, a Reuters witness said. Firefighters put out the blaze.

Chanting "God is Greatest," the protesters stormed the embassy; threw stones and shattered its windows; burned the national flag and replaced it with another flag reading "No God but Allah, Mohammad is His Prophet."

The protesters also set the Norwegian embassy ablaze. It was brought under control by firefighters. Police fired teargas to disperse the protesters and cordoned off the area.

"When the issue came back into the headlines, we asked for increased security for the embassy. It appears we did not quite (get the increased security)," Norway's ambassador to Syria Sven Sevje told CNN. He said staff at the embassy were safe.

A small Norwegian Christian newspaper was one of the first newspaper outside Denmark to publish the cartoons. A Danish paper published them in September.

Jorgen Nielsen, from the Danish Institute in Damascus, which develops cultural ties between Denmark and the Arab world and cooperates closely with the embassy, told reporters the Danish embassy was empty at the time because the protest was expected.

The Danish Foreign Ministry warned in statement on Saturday against traveling to Syria and urged all Danes to leave the Arab country.

"The situation for Danes in Syria has developed very negatively in the past hours," the ministry said in a statement.

The Norwegian Foreign Ministry has also advised Norwegians to leave Syria. Norway has already pulled all aid workers and diplomats out of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after protests there.

A security official at the scene said the Danish building, located at the upscale Abou Remaneh area, also housed the Chilean and the Swedish embassies. He had no further details.

For many Muslims depicting the Prophet Mohammad is forbidden and European leaders have called for restraint, expressing concern about the firestorm that has erupted over the last days.

Scores of riot police were also deployed to protect the U.S. mission.

(additional reporting by Andrew Gray in London, Per Bech Thomsen in Denmark and James Kilner in Oslo)