The United States on Wednesday vowed to track down those behind the killings of its ambassador to Libya and three other Americans amid a regional furor over a film mocking Islam’s prophet.
“We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act,” said President Barack Obama. “And make no mistake, justice will be done.”
The slain ambassador, Chris Stevens, helped save Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi during last year’s revolution. He died there Tuesday night, along with another diplomat and two State Department security officers, when a mob stormed the U.S. Consulate and set it ablaze in what U.S. sources said Wednesday was a pre-planned attack.
It was one of several American diplomatic missions that faced protests after the online release of a film that ridiculed Muslims and depicted the Prophet Mohammed as a child molester, womanizer and ruthless killer. In the Egyptian capital Cairo, several men scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy and tore down its American flag.
But the U.S. sources told CNN the attackers used the protest outside the consulate as a diversion, and Obama called the violence unwarranted.
“Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,” he said. “But there is absolutely no justification for this type of senseless violence — none.”
Libya’s leaders apologized for the attack, with Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib calling it a “cowardly, criminal act.”
Sources tracking militant Islamist groups in eastern Libya say a pro-al Qaeda group responsible for a previous armed assault on the Benghazi consulate is the chief suspect.
A senior U.S. official told CNN that American surveillance drones are expected to join the hunt for jihadists who may be tied to the attack. The drones are expected to gather intelligence that will be turned over to Libyan officials for strikes, the official said.
And a senior defense official told CNN the drones would be part of “a stepped-up, more focused search” for a particular insurgent cell that may have been behind the killings.
In June, a senior Libyan official told CNN that U.S. controllers were already flying the unmanned craft over suspected jihadist training camps in eastern Libya because of concerns about rising activity by al Qaeda and like-minded groups in the region.
The FBI also is investigating, the bureau said Wednesday.
Tuesday’s attack took place on the 11th anniversary of the al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.
A senior U.S. official familiar with the details of the attack said a rocket-propelled grenade set the consulate ablaze, leaving the Americans facing a fire inside and attackers outside.
Stevens and the others who died were separated from the rest of the staff while trying to escape to the roof of the building. The official said there were several “valiant but unsuccessful” attempts to get back into the building and rescue them.
Stevens, Foreign Service information management officer Sean Smith and a U.S. regional security officer were in a safe room in the Benghazi post as it burned around them, according to CNN sources. The security official got out and went back for Stevens and Smith, but found Smith dead and recovered his body, the sources said.
Stevens managed to escape the burning house, but the sources did not know what his condition was when he got out. The sources said Smith died of smoke inhalation, but it was not clear how Stevens died.
American sources could not say whether the attackers instigated the protest or merely took advantage of it, and they say they don’t believe Stevens was specifically targeted.
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