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11 dead in Libya, ministers fired

Rome, Feb. 18 (Reuters): The row over controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad forced two ministers out of their jobs in Europe and West Asia today after clashes between police and protesters claimed 11 lives in Libya.

Initially resisting calls for his resignation, Italian reforms minister Roberto Calderoli stepped down after he was widely blamed for bloody clashes in Libya over cartoons of the Prophet which he had made into T-shirts and wore on television.

In Tripoli, the General People's Congress fired interior minister Nasser al-Mabrouk Abdallah and police chiefs in Benghazi saying “disproportionate force” had been used to disperse protesters who tried to storm the Italian consulate.

The Congress hailed the dead as “martyrs” and declared tomorrow a day of mourning across Libya.

Italian diplomats in Tripoli said Libyan authorities had told them at least 11 were dead and nearly 40 wounded.

The protesters in Benghazi set fire to the Danish flag and cars as they attempted to storm the Italian consulate, the only Western diplomatic mission in the eastern Libyan city.

Libyan state TV showed footage of stone-throwing protesters and security forces with guns in streets round a scorched building. The footage contained what sounded like gunshots.

The footage also showed police carrying away at least one casualty and thick black smoke billowing from a burning car.

“They should send in the military here. The police can’t keep them back. It’s getting worse here,” a consulate employee, identified as Antonio Simoes Goncalves, told Sky Italia TV. Libya had closed its embassy in Denmark in protest at the drawings last month.

Italian ambassador Francesco Trupiano said he had met Abdullah half an hour earlier to discuss the clashes. “But as for Italy, there are no Italians injured or at this moment in danger,” he added.

The Libyan government said some of the protesters had entered the Italian consulate and set fire to a section of the building.

The cartoons, one of which shows the Prophet wearing a turban shaped like a bomb, were first published in Denmark in September, but last month newspapers in Europe and elsewhere re-published them to assert freedom of expression.

The publications caused outrage across Europe, West Asia and Africa, becoming a showdown between religious tolerance and freedom of speech.

Muslims believe images of the Prophet are forbidden but moderate Muslims, although finding the cartoons deeply offensive, fear radicals are hijacking the issue to deepen rifts between the Muslim world and the West.

Britain’s Muslim Action Committee which organised a protest march in London said 40,000 people rallied peacefully in Trafalgar Square. One placard read: “Free Speech = Cheap Insults”.

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