The American ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was one of at least four Americans killed when armed militants stormed the US Consulate in Benghazi, according to media reports on Wednesday. Earlier reports had indicated that only one American national — a consular official — had died in the attack.
Libyan officials quoted by Reuters and AP said the ambassador was heading for a safer venue with three other officials after the attack on the consulate, when gunmen fired rockets on their car.
The four were reportedly fleeing after another American was killed by the militants. A witness said attackers fired automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at the consulate as they clashed with Libyans hired to guard the facility.
According to a conflicting report carried by the BBC and Al Jazeera, Stevens died of smoke inhalation during the attack on the consulate.
The deaths were confirmed on Wednesday afternoon by the White House, which condemned the “outrageous attack” on the consulate and praised Stevens as a “courageous and exemplary representative of the United States.”
Stevens was a career member of the US Foreign Service specializing in the Middle East, and served at various diplomatic posts around the region, including a stint as political section chief at the US consulate in Jerusalem.
He served as deputy chief of mission at the US Libyan embassy from 2007-2009, as part of the team that re-established US-Libyan official relations after a decades-long hiatus. During the Libyan civil war, he was the US representative to the Libyan Transitional National Council, and assumed his post as ambassador on May 22, 2012.
Earlier Tuesday night, violent protesters stormed the US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, scaling the walls of the compound and replacing an American flag with an Islamic banner.
The protests in both Libya and Egypt were sparked by outrage over a film ridiculing the prophet Muhammad, produced by an Israeli filmmaker living in California and being promoted by an extreme anti-Muslim Egyptian Christian campaigner in the United States.
A 14-minute trailer of the movie that sparked the protests, posted on the website YouTube in an original English version and another dubbed into Egyptian Arabic, depicts Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a madman in an overtly ridiculing way, showing him having sex and calling for massacres.
These were the first such assaults on US diplomatic facilities in either country, at a time when both Libya and Egypt are struggling to overcome the turmoil following the ouster of their longtime leaders, Muammar Gadhafi and Hosni Mubarak, in uprisings last year.
Sam Bacile, the writer, director and producer of the movie, which he says showcases his view of Islam as a hateful religion, was funded by $5 million from about 100 Jewish donors whom he declined to identify, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.
AP contributed to this report.