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The Latest On The Attack In Benghazi


On a Thursday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

We are tracking a variety of protests across the Arab world this morning. We've been watching demonstrators outside the U.S. embassy in Yemen throw rocks and set fires. Embassy employees still in the compound are bracing for more protests, while the president of Yemen has issued an apology for the attack.

INSKEEP: And we're continuing to follow that. Now, in Cairo, protesters clashed with Egyptian security forces again today. Cairo, of course, is the city where protesters tore down an American flag earlier this week at the U.S. embassy. All of this purports to be a protest against a film that portrays the Prophet Muhammad in ways that many people find offensive.

NPR's Leila Fadel is in Cairo. And Leila, what's happening there today?

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Well, protests began late last night and have continued into today. Riot police have tear-gassed rock-throwing demonstrators who are also throwing petrol bombs, little Molotov cocktails that are made out of pop bottles. But it really seems like a different crowd - last night and tonight a lot of young men, hardcore soccer fans, who seem more intent on goading the police than protesting the United States.

MONTAGNE: And, Leila, what is the Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president of Egypt, saying today? And what is he doing as all this happens?

FADEL: Well, today he made statements in Brussels that said they rejects all unlawful acts against embassies, that they will continue to protect foreign embassies. But he also continues to say that the prophet is a red line, that they cannot accept what was in this film and they expect the United States to punish the filmmakers.

INSKEEP: OK, that's NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo. And Leila, stay with us for a moment. We are in the midst of a fast-moving day here.

But for the next few minutes, we're going to try to slow down one of the week's tragic events. It's the attack in Benghazi, Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador, three other Americans, and eight Libyans who were trying to guard the U.S. consulate there. We're going to try to sort through those few deadly hours.

MONTAGNE: And earlier this morning, reporter Hadeel al-Shalchi of Reuters, who's in Benghazi, described these events. Word spread of the protest in Cairo against a film that insulted Islam. Protesters headed to the consulate in Libya and the situation escalated.

HADEEL AL-SHALCHI: What protesters tell me happened is that there was an exchange of fire. Who shot the first shot, either from inside of the embassy or from outside is still murky. What we know is that when the clash started between the two sides, all hell broke loose. People went back home, brought all their weapons, brigades that are not involved with the government, or not recognized by the government, brought in their heavy weapons. RPGs were shot in the air, and that's when it became very chaotic.

INSKEEP: A lot of guns in Benghazi, Libya, things became more and more violent. And later, she says, it began to seem like an organized attack because of mortar fire that appeared to be carefully targeted. That's the information from Benghazi, Libya.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is here in the U.S. She's been talking with U.S. officials. And Dina, what is their timeline of what happened when in Benghazi?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, the U.S. consulate in Benghazi is in this temporary compound that's basically made up of a main building, a couple of auxiliary buildings and an annex. And when they provided this timeline, they said that around 10:00 p.m. Libya time, Tuesday night, the compound started taking small arms fire. And then maybe 15 minutes later there was a rocket-propelled grenade that went into the main building and then set it on fire.

There were three people in that main building - Ambassador Stevens, a U.S. information officer named Sean Smith, and a regional security guard. And apparently these rocket-propelled grenades set the main building on fire, so they were trying to escape. And there was smoke and fire. The security guard made it out. Ambassador Stevens apparently hadn't. In the confusion they lost track of him.

And it took about half an hour for a handful of men to get back into the main building to look for the ambassador, because they were under such heavy fire. When they finally got back into the main building, they found Sean Smith. He had died there. But they couldn't find the ambassador anywhere. And by then it was about midnight.

MONTAGNE: And Dina, how exactly - 'cause there was a little confusion about this yesterday - how exactly did Ambassador Stevens die? And then what happened to him?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there still is a lot of confusion about exactly how he died. When they eventually got into the main building and they realized that the ambassador was no longer there, and they didn't know how - where he was or how he left the compound, they found out later that he was apparently taken to a local hospital, but it's unclear how he got there. It's unclear whether he died in the compound or died at the hospital.

They think that local Libyans took him to the hospital, but the circumstances around that are still unclear. The next time U.S. officials saw the ambassador was when the Libyans dropped his body off at the airport.

MONTAGNE: And let me ask you just one more thing. The other two Americans who died, they have never been named - so far. Why is that?

TEMPLE-RASTON: They haven't been named because they are trying to contact their next of kin. We understand the other two who died are likely to be security people. But they're trying to contact their next of kin before they release those names.

INSKEEP: So the timeline that U.S. officials give suggests an incident that escalated fairly quickly. You're saying within maybe 15 minutes there were rocket-propelled grenades being fired. It became this battle for control of a building. You said that Sean Smith, the U.S. embassy employee, was killed at that time, that the ambassador disappeared, two other Americans died along the way along with a number of Libyans.

Is it clear to U.S. officials who was attacking them, whether it can be described as a protest mob, whether it can be described as an organized attack, or some combination?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there are a lot of possible suspects and there's nothing definitive yet. There are lots of reports out there about the attack being planned, that it wasn't just a spontaneous protest that went awry, and that's something that the U.S. is trying to determine, but there's planned - like the Christmas day attempting bombing of a plane over Detroit, and then there's planned in the sense that extremists might be looking for an opportunity to attack, and the film protest, if that's what it was, gave them the opportunity they were looking for.

U.S. officials told us that ahead of the 9/11 anniversary they had checked security at diplomatic missions around the world, and there was no what they call threat stream that indicated that the consulate in Benghazi was on the receiving end of any plots. That would be one indication that something was planned ahead. In the Detroit case, there was intelligence that wasn't well understood, so the underwear bomber got on the plane and he shouldn't have. There's no indication here that that happened in this case.

INSKEEP: Let me bring Leila Fadel back into the conversation now. NPR's Leila Fadel, who's listening in with us from Cairo. And Leila, you've covered this region for quite some time. Is it abundantly clear here that this film that was shown on television that offended so many people was the reason for the attack, or when you look at the evidence, are there clues to think it was merely a pretext, or that it was more about the date 9/11 that would be the cause for an attack?

FADEL: I mean I think things are still very unclear. As Dina said, it's looking more and more like it was a great opportunity for extremists to take advantage of the situation and attack, but we really don't know. Witnesses we spoke to on the ground in Benghazi, including the son of the landlord of that building, the consulate building, said that it seemed quite organized, a two-pronged attack against both gates of the compound.

But Benghazi and Libya in general is awash with weapons. Everybody has them, RPGs, anti-aircraft weaponry, and a lot of militias that are not controlled by the government; it's also given the opportunity for extremist groups to proliferate and be heavily armed, and the authorities are unable to really control it, and a lot these men remain actors during the rebellion, so - and were working together against Gadhafi. So it's a very confusing situation right now.

INSKEEP: In talking with the correspondent in Benghazi elsewhere in the program, we hear news that even people in Benghazi do not know how many armed groups are in the city at any given time.

FADEL: Yes, that's right. It's very unclear. Witnesses on the ground described the attack as being done by extremist Islamist militants. Some talked about (unintelligible), but they're really profiling them. They only saw bearded men with men with weapons going into the embassy - to the consulate.

INSKEEP: Dina Temple-Raston, in about 10 seconds here, what questions are investigators asking next here?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they're going to send an FBI team there to try and sort through the evidence, and as they sort through that, I think they're going to get a better idea of who might be behind this. Nobody has taken credit yet, and that's interesting in and of itself, so we'll see whether or not they can pick a specific group who might be behind this.

INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston in New York, NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo, thanks to you both. You're hearing them right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.