WASHINGTON // A deadly assault on a US consulate in Libya was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim video, the US ambassador to the United Nations said yesterday, even as Libya's president insisted the attackers spent months preparing and carefully choosing their date - the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Unnerved by the rapidly escalating raid on Tuesday that claimed the life of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, the US administration last week launched an investigation into whether terrorist groups had exploited outrage over an anti-Muslim video to trigger an attack long in the works.
But Ambassador Susan Rice said evidence gathered so far shows no indication of a premeditated or coordinated strike.
She said the attack in Benghazi, powered by mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, appeared to be a copycat of demonstrations that had erupted hours earlier outside the US Embassy in Cairo, spurred by a YouTube film attributed to a California man mocking the Prophet Mohammed.
"It seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons," Ms Rice said, adding that such weaponry is easy to come by in post-revolutionary Libya.
The United States ordered non-essential diplomatic staff and their relatives to leave Sudan and Tunisia yesterday following violent anti-American protests while the US Embassy in Yemen has suspended all consular services.
The protests came in response to the circulation of a clip from Innocence of Muslims, a film that mocks Islam.
Late yesterday, the leader of Hizbollah called for protests against the video starting today but said Muslims must not attack embassies. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said that the Shiite militant group will organise demonstrations against the film in different parts of Lebanon.
"The whole world needs to see your anger on your faces, in your fists and your shouts," Sheik Nasrallah said in a televised speech. "The whole world should know that the Prophet has followers who will not be silent in the face of humiliation".
Last Friday, demonstrators stormed the US Embassy in Tunis and four people were killed in the melee.
Two protesters were killed in Sudan on Friday as a crowd of about 5,000 furious people attacked the embassies of Britain, the US and Germany, setting the last ablaze.
"Given the security situation in Tunis and Khartoum, the State Department has ordered the departure of all family members and non-emergency personnel from both posts, and issued parallel travel warnings to American citizens," the US state department's spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
Germany followed the US lead and withdrew some staff from its embassy in Sudan.
But Mohammed Al Megaryef, president of the Libyan National Congress, told CBS News that the attack was "pre-planned, determined, pre-determined".
He said Libyan authorities have arrested about 50 people alleged to have been involved in the attack. He added that "a few" of those who joined in the attack were foreigners, who had entered Libya "from different directions, some of them definitely from Mali and Algeria".
Tunisian authorities, meanwhile, arrested 75 people in connection with protests, a spokesman for the interior ministry said yesterday. A planned demonstration in Sana, Yemen, against the deployment of US Marines at the US Embassy was cancelled by organisers, the Houthi rebel movement from the north, after people failed to show up.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse