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Cartoon row: Danish embassy ablaze

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Thousands of angry Syrian demonstrators storm the Danish Embassy in Damascus Saturday.

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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- Hundreds of Syrian demonstrators stormed the Danish Embassy in Damascus Saturday and set fire to the building, witnesses said.

The demonstrators were protesting offensive caricatures of Islam's Prophet Mohammed that were first published in a Danish newspaper several months ago.

Witnesses said the demonstrators set fire to the entire building, which also houses the embassies of Chile and Sweden.

Protesters have been staging sit-ins outside the Danish Embassy in downtown Damascus almost daily since the furor over the drawings broke out last week.

Saturday's protest started out peacefully but as anger escalated, protesters broke through police barriers and torched the building, the witnesses said.

The cartoons, first printed in Denmark and then published elsewhere in Europe, have touched a raw nerve in the Arab and Islamic world, in part because Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depiction of the Prophet Mohammed, favorable or otherwise.

Aggravating the affront was one caricature of Mohammed wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse.

The Danish government has expressed regret for the furor, but refused to become involved, citing freedom of expression.

Rage against caricatures of Islam's revered prophet poured out across the Muslim world on Saturday, with aggrieved believers calling for the execution of those involved, storming European buildings, and setting European flags afire.

In its first official comments on the caricatures, the Vatican, while deploring violent protests, said certain forms of criticism represent an "unacceptable provocation."

"The right to freedom of thought and expression ... cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers," the Vatican said in a statement.

The cartoons, first printed in Denmark, and then published elsewhere in Europe, have touched a raw nerve, in part because Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depictions of the Prophet Mohammed. Aggravating the affront was one caricature of Mohammed wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse.

Muslims in Europe have reacted less passionately than their counterparts in the Mideast and Southeast Asia, but on Saturday, anger in Europe swelled, too, with demonstrators clashing with police in Copenhagen and gathering outside the Danish Embassy in London.

In Munich, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she understood Muslims' hurt, but denounced violent reactions.

"I can understand that religious feelings of Muslims have been injured and violated," Merkel said at an international security conference, " but I also have to make clear that I feel it is unacceptable to see this as legitimizing the use of violence."

But incensed faithful in some parts of the Muslim world had no use for such words.

A leader of the Islamic militant Hamas group, which recently swept Palestinian parliamentary elections, told an Italian newspaper on Saturday that the cartoons were an "unforgivable insult" that should be punished by death.

"We should have killed all those who offend the Prophet and instead here we are, protesting peacefully," Mahmoud Zahar, a top leader of the militant Islamic group that won the January 25 Palestinian elections, told Italian daily Il Giornale.

"We should have killed them, we should have required just punishment for those who respect neither religion nor its holiest symbols," Zahar was quoted as saying.

Hundreds of Palestinians turned out for protests on Saturday. In Gaza City, demonstrators hurled stones at a European Commission building and stormed a German cultural center, smashing windows and doors. Protesters also burned German and Danish flags, and called for a boycott of Danish products.

"Insulting the prophet means insulting every Muslim," blared a loudspeaker car accompanying some 400 demonstrators who marched to the European Commission building.

In the West Bank town of Hebron, about 50 Palestinians marched to the headquarters of the international observer mission there, burned a Danish flag, and demanded a boycott of Danish goods. "We will redeem our prophet, Mohammed, with our blood,' they chanted.

Masked gunmen affiliated with the Fatah Party called on the Palestinian Authority and Muslim nations to recall their diplomatic missions from Denmark until it apologizes.

At least 500 Israeli Arabs gathered peacefully in Nazareth for the first protest against the caricatures on Israeli soil. A procession set off from the As-Salam mosque toward the Basilica of the Annunciation, where Christian tradition says Mary was informed of Jesus' impending birth. Sheik Raed Salah, a radical leader of the Islamic Movement, was to address the crowd later.

"Allah is the only God, and Mohammed is his prophet," loudspeakers blared as the march began.

Leaders of Muslim nations in Asia denounced the caricatures, The prime minister of Malaysia, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, said the publication of the cartoons showed a "blatant disregard for Islamic sensitivities over the use of such images, which are particularly insulting and forbidden by Islam." But in a written statement, he urged Malaysians to stay calm.

"Let the perpetrators of the insult see the gravity of their own mistakes which only they themselves can and should correct," he said, without elaborating.

In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono denounced the cartoons as insensitive.

But "as religious people, we should accept the apology extended by the Danish government," he added.

About 500 people rallied Saturday south of Baghdad, some carrying banners urging "honest people all over the world to condemn this act," and demanding an EU apology. The protest was organized by followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been among the most outspoken Iraqi clerics on the issue.

Angry demonstrators took to the streets in Denmark and Britain on Saturday, signaling a ratcheting up of tensions among European Muslims.

In Copenhagen, young Muslims clashed briefly with police after they were stopped from boarding a train to go to a demonstration north of the Danish capital. Some of the roughly 300 demonstrators threw rocks and bottles at police but no one was injured, officials said.

At the demonstration later Saturday outside Copenhagen, right-wing extremists plan to protest the recent burning of Danish flags -- a gathering that could inflame tensions with the Muslims.

Although many of Denmark's 200,000 Muslims were deeply offended by the cartoons, mass demonstrations have not broken out.

In London, several hundred demonstrators gathered under heavy police security outside Denmark's embassy, shouting slogans to protest the publication of the drawings.

CNN has chosen to not show the cartoons out of respect for Islam.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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