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Anger Over Drone Strikes, Anti-Islam Film, Provokes Deadly Protests in Pakistan

September 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: The bloodshed in Pakistan today marked a new spike in anti-American violence.

Gunfire and arson raged in city after city. And the death toll of at least 19 was the worst single-day count since an anti-Islamic video surfaced.

The Pakistani government had declared this a national holiday, Love for the Prophet Day, and encouraged peaceful protest. Some 15,000 people filled the streets in the southwest city of Karachi.

MOHAMMAD ARSHAD, Pakistan (through translator): We want to show the world that Muslims are one and united on this issue. We are all ready to die for the Prophet Mohammed. We have left our family to join the protest and will remain here until the protest is over.

JEFFREY BROWN: But things quickly turned violent, as crowds burned cars, theaters and a bank, and some opened fire on police. At least a dozen people were killed, including three officers.

There were more deaths in Peshawar, to the northwest, where rioters set fires, and police fired back with tear gas and live rounds. And in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, police battled hundreds of protesters to keep them away from the U.S. Embassy.

Protests were largely peaceful in Indonesia, Egypt, Iraq, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, but no less anti-American, with crowds burning flags and effigies of President Obama.

In Washington, U.S. officials kept a close eye on events, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the Pakistani foreign minister.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: I want to thank the government of Pakistan for their efforts to protect our embassy in Islamabad and consulates in Lahore, Peshawar, and Karachi.

And I want to be clear. As I have said on numerous occasions, the violence we have seen cannot be tolerated. Of course, there is provocation, and we have certainly made clear that we do not in any way support provocation.

JEFFREY BROWN: That provocation took the form of an online trailer for a film made by a California man mocking the Prophet Mohammed.

New fuel was added this week when a French satirical magazine published crude cartoons of Mohammed.

Hoping to ease the tensions, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad began airing an ad on Pakistani television yesterday with clips of Secretary Clinton and President Obama.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pakistan’s relations with the U.S. had already been tense over American drone attacks in Pakistani territory and the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.

After her Washington meeting today, the Pakistani foreign minister avoided directly criticizing the riots in her country. But she did voice gratitude for the U.S. response to the video.

HINA RABBANI KHAR, Pakistani foreign minister: Your condemnation has given a strong message that the United States government not only condemns it, but has absolutely no support to such blasphemous videos or content anywhere. I think that is an important message. And that message should go a long way in ending the violence on many streets in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, in Iran, at a military parade, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused the U.S. and others of promoting strife under the guise of protecting civil liberties.

PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, Iran (through translator): They are seeking to trigger ethnic and religious conflicts. They chant fake slogans of freedom, and claim commitment to freedom of thought and freedom of speech.

JEFFREY BROWN: And back in Pakistan, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf called for the world to outlaw blasphemy.

PRIME MINISTER RAJA PERVEZ ASHRAF, Pakistan: We are demanding that the United Nations and other international organizations seek a law that bans such hate speech aimed at fomenting hatred and sowing the seeds of discord through such falsehood.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, Pakistan shut down YouTube access after the website refused to remove the anti-Islamic video. And in France, authorities banned all protests for the day in a bid to prevent violence.

And in another development today, some 30,000 Libyans marched in Benghazi in a demonstration against Islamic extremists. The crowds mourned the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens last week and demanded that a large militant group, Ansar al-Sharia, disband. They also called for Libya’s interim government to improve security.