Threat to Europeans over 'hostile' Mohamed cartoons

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As the European press asserted its right to publish hostile cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed, anger in the Arab world reached boiling point in Gaza where gunmen converged on European Union offices and gave the Danish, Norwegian, French and German governments 48 hours to apologise.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, a German citizen was seized - and later released - after armed militants roamed hotels threatening to kidnap nationals of European countries in which the cartoons - one of which shows the Prophet wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb with a burning fuse - have been published.

Newspapers in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands reprinted one or more of the Danish cartoons that have caused the storm.

Yesterday's incidents prompted the EU to review the security of its representatives in the occupied Palestinian territories, where armed militants warned the staff at its Technical Assistance Office in Gaza City that they were demanding that all French citizens leave Gaza.

"Any citizen of these countries [that printed the cartoon] who are present in Gaza will put themselves in danger," a gunman in a Fatah-linked armed unit said at the site. On the doors of the closed office, graffiti left by the gunmen - signed by Kattab al-Yasser, an armed group within the Fatah-linked al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the Soraya al-Quds armed wing of the ultra-militant Islamic Jihad - declared: "Closed until they apologise to the Muslims."

Two EU officials from Denmark have not gone to work for the past two days at its monitoring mission covering the Rafah crossing from southern Gaza into Egypt.

At the Qasr hotel in Nablus, Awad Hamdan, the manager, said gunmen demanded to know if any German, French, Danish or Norwegian guests were staying. Mr Hamdan said he told the gunmen there were no guests from those countries. He said the gunmen warned him not to accept such guests and told him they would be abducted if he did.

Denmark and Norway announced they were temporarily closing their representative offices in the West Bank administrative centre of Ramallah. Rolf Holmboe, the head of the Danish office, said shots had been fired at it but no one had been hurt.

Ahmed Qureia, the outgoing Palestinian Prime Minister and a leading figure in the Fatah "old guard", condemned the caricatures, saying they "provoke all Muslims everywhere in the world". While asking gunmen not to attack foreigners, he added: "But we warn that emotions may flare in this very sensitive issue."

Mahmoud Zahar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, visited a group of Christian nuns and clerics yesterday at the Holy Family School to reassure them after the Latin Church, a small congregation based in Jerusalem, had also received threats. He unequivocally condemned the threats against foreign nationals. "We are not accepting any aggression against foreign institutions whether EU or American, or against any other group, foreign or Palestinian," Dr Zahar said. He said some Palestinians had already boycotted Danish goods and Hamas wanted them to continue protesting by "legal means".

He told the Christian group "you are our brothers who live side by side with us along with the foreigners who come to serve this community". He said that Hamas's armed wing would offer protection for the Christians until such time as an incoming Hamas government could reform the security services and provide official security.

Earlier, Manuel Mussalam, a priest of the Latin Church in Gaza, delivered an emotional appeal to Dr Zahar after the church received a fax that he said had come from "Fatah gunmen and the Soraya al-Quds". He said: "They threatened our churches in Gaza. We will not be threatened. We are Christians, yes, but Palestinians first."

Khadr Habib, an Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza, insisted that the faction was against targeting "foreign guests" but warned that the situation could move "out of control" because of anger at the cartoons. He said: "Talking as a Muslim, this is very bad. The Prophet Mohamed is a red line. I am very surprised that the Danish government did not attack the publication of the cartoon."

He added that he was also surprised that other European governments had not apologised for the publication. "Islam respects all other religions," he added.

The spiral of publication and outraged response seems set to continue as European newspapers waded into the row by reprinting many of the cartoons.

Others took the approach of the French centre-left newspaper, Le Monde, which published a large, front-page sketch of a pencil writing over and over the words: "I must not draw Mohamed". Plantu, the newspaper's award-winning cartoonist, made the words spiral into a striking portrait of a turbanned man with a flowing beard.

Utter confusion, meanwhile, surrounded the decision of the struggling French tabloid newspaper France-Soir to publish all 12 Danish cartoons on Wednesday. The newspaper's proprietor, Raymond Lakah, a Franco-Egyptian businessman, fired France-Soir's publisher and editor, Jacques Lefranc, for printing the drawings and issued a public apology to Muslims. However, his newspaper devoted the first four pages yesterday to congratulating itself on its defence of democracy, press freedom and "secularity" against "religious intolerance and censorship".

France-Soir made no mention of M. Lefranc's dismissal, which some executives claimed was related to M. Lakah's bid to dispose of the bankrupt newspaper.

How the European press covered the controversy

FRANCE

The editor of France-Soir, the tabloid daily that published all 12 cartoons, was fired yesterday as the paper's Franco-Egyptian proprietor issued an apology to the country's Muslim population. No other French publication has featured the cartoons, but Le Monde illustrated its coverage with a front page illustration of the words: "I must not draw Mohammed."

DENMARK

The country that sparked the furore in September when the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons featuring Mohamed hassummoned its foreign envoys for talks on dealing with the crisis. "We are talking about an issue with fundamental significance to how democracies work," said the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Sales of Danish goods in the Middle East have collapsed.

GERMANY

The staunchly conservative Die Welt published one of the most controversial Danish cartoons, showing Mohamed with a turban shaped like a bomb, topped by a hissing fuse. "There is no right to be shielded from satire in the West," wrote the paper. The Berliner Zeitung featured the cartoons on its news pages.

SPAIN

Two newspapers, El Periodico and ABC, have published the cartoons, arguing that press freedom is more important than the protests and boycotts which the cartoons are provoking across the Muslim world.

ITALY

Corriere della Serra and La Stampa newspapers published the cartoon depicting the Prophet wearing a bomb-shaped turban.

NETHERLANDS

The Dutch paper De Volkskrant reprinted some of the offending cartoons over two pages. The paper also interviewed Dutch cartoonists, not all of whom were willing to support the move. "Why throw oil on the fire?" asked one cartoonists, Joep Bertrams.

The story so far

30 SEPTEMBER 2005: The 12 cartoons are published in Danish paper Jyllands-Posten

20 OCTOBER: The Danish Prime Minister hears complaints from 11 countries but he refuses to intervene

10 JANUARY 2006: Magazinet in Norway reprints the cartoons

28 JANUARY: After a boycott, the Danish-Swedish firm Arla appeases Muslims with adverts in Middle East papers

29 JANUARY: Saudi Arabia calls for a boycott of Danish goods and orders its envoy back from Copenhagen. Libya says that it will close its Danish embassy

30 JANUARY: Editor of Jyllands-Posten apologises. Gunmen storm EU's offices in Gaza

31 JANUARY: Denmark tells citizens not to go to Saudi Arabia

1 FEBRUARY: Seven papers in Europe republish cartoons in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten

YESTERDAY: Shihan in Jordan reprints cartoons to show "extent of the offence". Gaza gunmen reoccupy EU offices.

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