Chirac condemns 'overtly provocative' cartoons

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Jacques Chirac has condemned the "overt provocation" of Muslims after a satirical weekly paper published caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed as the continuing protests across the world against the cartoons broadened to become anti-West.

Four people were killed in Afghanistan by police as they attempted to storm a US military base after last week's publication by European newspapers of cartoons depicting the Prophet. The protests erupted when several European newspapers decided to take a stand for free speech last Thursday by publishing the same cartoons that first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September last year.

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, accused Syria and Iran of stoking the protests by Muslims that have inflamed the Middle East and beyond. In the West Bank town of Hebron, international observers were forced to flee from their offices as Palestinian demonstrators smashed windows.

President Chirac, speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting, said that "anything which hurts other people's convictions, particularly religious convictions, must be avoided. Freedom of expression should be exercised in a spirit of responsibility. I condemn any overt provocation that could dangerously fuel passions."

The French weekly Charlie-Hebdo published all 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet, which were originally in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper, as well as a cartoon of its own on the front page. The newspaper's circulation went up from 100,000 to 160,000. A total of 320,000 copies of the edition were printed. The editor of Charlie-Hebdo, Philippe Val, said: "It is unacceptable that religious groups are setting down the rules for the rights of the press and freedom of expression. It is not up to religious groups to decide what to publish or not."

The newspaper went ahead with publication after a court overruled objections from Muslims. Several French newspapers have published the cartoons.

In Washington, President Bush called on governments around the world to put an end to the violence. But Ms Rice went further, saying: "Iran and Syria have gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and to use this to their own purposes and the world ought to call them on it."

Danish embassies have been the target of protests. In Damascus, demonstrators set fire to the Danish embassy, and the mission in Tehran was also attacked. As the protests broadened, the British embassy in Tehran was pelted with stones yesterday.

Iran's best-selling newspaper, Hamshahri, launched a competition on Tuesday calling for cartoons about the Holocaust.

Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten, which first published the Mohamed drawings, said of the Iranian cartoons: "We would consider publishing them, but we will not make a decision before we have seen the cartoons."

It was reported yesterday that the former editor of the Danish newspaper's Sunday edition, Jens Kaiser, turned down five small cartoons of Jesus's resurrection three years ago. "Having seen the cartoons, I found that they were not very good. I failed to see the purportedly provocative nature," he said.

The editor-in-chief of Jyllands-Posten, Carsten Juste, has rejected calls for his resignation. The newspaper has apologised for offending Muslims.