Militants Surround EU Offices in Gaza Over 'Offensive' Cartoons

Published February 02, 2006

| Associated Press

Outrage over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad escalated in the Arab and Islamic world Thursday, with Palestinian gunmen briefly kidnapping a German citizen and protesters in Pakistan chanting "death to France" and "death to Denmark."

Palestinian militants surrounded European Union headquarters in Gaza, and gunmen burst into several hotels and apartments in the West Bank in search of foreigners to take hostage.

In Iraq, Islamic leaders urged worshippers to stage demonstrations from Baghdad to the southern city of Basra following weekly prayer services Friday. Afghanistan and Indonesia condemned the drawings, and Iran summoned the Austrian ambassador, whose country holds the EU presidency.

The issue opened divisions among European Union governments. Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said EU leaders have a responsibility to "clearly condemn" insults to any religion. But French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said he preferred "an excess of caricature to an excess of censorship."

Sarkozy joined journalists in rallying around the editorial director of France Soir, who was fired by the newspaper's Egyptian owner. France Soir and several other newspapers across Europe reprinted the caricatures this week in a show of support for freedom of expression.

The cartoons were first published in September in a Danish newspaper, touching off anger among Muslims who knew about it. The issue reignited last week after Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Denmark.

The Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, had asked 40 cartoonists to draw images of the prophet. The purpose, its chief editor said, was "to examine whether people would succumb to self-censorship, as we have seen in other cases when it comes to Muslim issues."

Islamic law, based on clerics' interpretation of the Quran and the sayings of the prophet, forbids depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and other major religious figures — even positive ones — to prevent idolatry. Shiite Muslim clerics differ in that they allow images of their greatest saint, Ali, the prophet's son-in-law, though not Muhammad.

Critics say the drawings were particularly insulting because some appeared to ridicule Muhammad. One cartoon showed the prophet wearing a turban shaped as a bomb.

France's Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk said he shared Muslim anger.

"We gain nothing by lowering religions, humiliating them and making caricatures of them. It's a lack of honesty and respect," he said. He said freedom of expression "is not a right without limits."

In the Arab world, a Jordanian newspaper, Shihan, took the bold step Thursday of running some of the drawings, saying it wanted to show its readers how offensive the cartoons were but also urging the world's Muslims to "be reasonable." Its editorial noted that Jyllands-Posten had apologized, "but for some reason, nobody in the Muslim world wants to hear the apology."

Hours later, the Jordanian government threatened legal action against Shihan, and the owners of the weekly said they had fired its chief editor, Jihad al-Momani, and withdrawn the issue from sale.

The outrage Thursday was most tangible in the Palestinian territories, where Norway and Denmark closed diplomatic offices after masked gunmen threatened to kidnap foreigners in Gaza.

Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank searched several hotels, and a German citizen was briefly kidnapped by gunmen from a hotel in the city of Nablus. Palestinian police freed the German, a teacher, after less than an hour.

Foreign reporters either pulled out of Gaza on Thursday or canceled plans to go to the coastal strip.

Palestinian security officials said they would try to protect foreigners in Gaza. Nineteen foreigners have been kidnapped in Gaza in recent months; all were freed unharmed.

The protests in the Palestinian territories came a week after the Islamic militant group Hamas defeated the ruling Fatah Party in parliamentary elections.

In one unusual twist, Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, visited a Gaza church Thursday and promised protection to Christians after Fatah gunmen threatened to target churches as part of their protests. Zahar offered to dispatch gunmen from Hamas' military wing, the Izzedine al Qassam Brigades, to guard the church.

"You are our brothers," Zahar told Father Manuel Musallam of the Holy Family Church.

In Gaza City, a dozen gunmen linked to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' defeated Fatah Party surrounded the EU Commission's local office.

One of the militants, flanked by two masked men with assault rifles, said the governments of Germany, France, Norway and Denmark must apologize for the cartoons by Thursday evening. If no apology is issued, the gunmen said they would target citizens of the four countries and shut down media offices, including the French news agency.

"Any citizens of these countries, who are present in Gaza, will put themselves in danger," the gunman said.

About 10 armed Palestinians gathered later at the French cultural center in Gaza City and warned of a "tough response" to any further disparagement of Muhammad.

Only a few dozen foreigners from the targeted countries were in Gaza on Thursday. Many others pulled out in recent months, following a spate of abductions of foreigners by Fatah-linked gunmen.

Danish and French members of an international observer team at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt stayed away from Gaza on Thursday, and instead worked from the group's headquarters in the Israeli town of Ashkelon, said a spokesman, Julio de La Guardia.

Gunhild Forselv, spokeswoman for the international mission in the West Bank town of Hebron, said she was in touch with community leaders and was not concerned for the safety of the 72-member observer force, which includes 21 Norwegians and 11 Danes. "We don't feel threatened," she said.

The EU's election observers were winding down operations, as planned, said Mathias Eick, who is German. He said the Gaza office had been closed and that 49 observers were in Ramallah. "There were security risks even before the election and nothing has changed," he said.

Norway closed its representative office in the West Bank to the public because of the threats, but said the 23-member staff remained on the job.

The Danish Foreign Ministry in Copenhagen said all Danes, except for two diplomats, have left the West Bank and Gaza in recent days. The Danish representative office in the West Bank was to be closed Friday because of the threats, a diplomat said.

In Nablus, gunmen from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent Fatah offshoot, went to four hotels and told staff they must not host Europeans from the targeted countries. The gunmen said they searched two apartments for foreigners to kidnap, but didn't find any. Foreigners now have three days to leave town, the gunmen said in an impromptu news conference after their fruitless search.

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