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Four Americans, including the ambassador to Libya, were killed when the US consulate in Benghazi was overrun. What looked like a protest over a film disparaging the Prophet Muhammad was potentially a planned attack.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton summarized the mood of many Americans on Wednesday saying, "Many Americans are asking - indeed, I asked myself - how could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be."
Throughout Wednesday and into Thursday, however, there were growing indications that Tuesday's deadly attack was the result of a long-planned militant operation disguised as a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islam video.
Officials at the US State Department outlined on Wednesday how "unknown Libyan extremists" attacked and overran the consulate by setting fire to its main building. Three Americans were in the building at the time, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Attack by small, savage group
Exactly what happened inside the building during the hours it was under fire from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades remains unclear and will be examined in an official inquiry, but initial information points to the three Americans being separated in the consulate. One, a security officer, got out and returned with help. He found Sean Smith, an information technology specialist, dead in the building, but could not find Stevens.
Four hours after the attack began, at 2 a.m. local time, US security officials were able to regain control of the consulate.
By then, Stevens was no longer in the building; he appears to have been taken to a hospital by Libyan civilians. Eventually, American authorities received a call that the ambassador had died, and they took possession of his body at dawn at the airport in Benghazi. Two US soldiers were also killed when their troop, which had been sent from Tripoli to rescue the diplomats, came under mortar fire.
The assault marked the first time a US ambassador was killed in an attack since 1979 when Adolph Dubs, the ambassador to Afghanistan, died in a firefight after a kidnapping attempt.
Clintoncalled for calm saying, "This was an attack by a small and savage group - not the people or government of Libya."
US President Barack Obama said at a press conference that the attack would not ruin ties between Libya and the United States. He emphasized that Libyan security forces assisted in defending the consulate and bringing the ambassador to the hospital.
"The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack," Obama said. "Make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to ring to justice the killers who attacked our people.
Video offers cover for assault
Referring to an anti-Islam video initially blamed for sparking the attack in Benghazi as well as protests at the US embassy in Cairo, Obama added that the United States rejected "all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others" and also said, "There is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None."
The video, "Innocence of Muslims," has been available on the Internet since July but did not create a stir until a dubbed Arabic-language version appeared online last week. American Pastor Terry Jones, whose threats to burn the Koran set off violent protests in Afghanistan, said the film was not intended to insult the Muslim community. The US Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey called Jones to ask the pastor not to support the film.
Isobel Coleman, a foreign policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said events in Benghazi, unlike protests in Cairo, were not connected to the video.
"This was an attack with major firepower that must have been planned for weeks," she told journalists, adding that it may have been planned to coincide with the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks and that the film offered additional cover for the plot.
Officials said they were still unsure who could be behind the attacks, but some speculated that al Qaeda or people affiliated with the terrorist network were responsible.
The attack also found its way into the US presidential election campaign with Republican nominee Mitt Romney condemning the attacks and criticizing the government's response to them.
"I also believe the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions," he said referring to a statement issued by the Cairo embassy that rejected "efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims"
Romney's statement was published before it was clear that Stevens and the three other Americans had been killed in Libya. The Obama campaign team said in a statement it was "shocked" the Republican nominee would launch a political attack at a time when the country "is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya. In an interview, Obama later said Romney had a tendency "to shoot first and aim later."
Meanwhile US diplomatic missions around the world have been put on high alert and most of the consular staff has been removed from Benghazi. The Americans injured in Libya will be flown to a US military hospital in Germany while the bodies of those killed will be sent first to Ramstein air base, also in Germany, before continuing to the United States.