Arab protests ease after violence against anti-Muslim film

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Protests against a film denigrating Islam eased Saturday after mobs stormed the American embassy compound in Tunisia and targeted diplomatic missions in Sudan and Yemen.

Clashes in Cairo's Tahrir Square stopped Saturday after Egypt's main Islamist groups called for calm. Police secured the square and arrested 220 people, the country's Interior Ministry said in a statement. In Tunis, where smoke billowed from the U.S. embassy Friday, a high security presence deterred protesters from taking to the streets.

The days of turmoil across the Arab and Muslim world put new Arab Spring leaders in nations such as Tunisia and Egypt on the defensive as Islamists showed their power to exploit popular discontent. The violence also kept President Barack Obama under pressure over his support for the Arab revolutions and over questions about whether his administration was caught unprepared for the threats to U.S. personnel and property.

The bodies of the four Americans killed in a Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, were returned to the United States Friday in a solemn ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid tribute to the fallen Americans, including slain ambassador Christopher Stevens, who played a pivotal role in helping Libyan rebels topple the Moammar Gadhafi dictatorship.

“Even as voices of suspicion and mistrust seek to divide countries and cultures from one another, the United States of America will never retreat from the world,” Obama told an audience of more than 200 in an open hangar. “We will never stop working for the dignity and freedom that every person deserves, whatever their creed, whatever their faith. That's the essence of American leadership.”

Clinton said “reasonable people and responsible leaders” in Arab and Muslim nations need to restore security and hold accountable those who commit violence. “The people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob,” Clinton said.

In Washington, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan expanded Friday on criticism that Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, has aimed at Obama since protests erupted over the film that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad.

“Only by the confident exercise of American influence are evil and violence overcome,” Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, said in a speech before the Family Research Council. “That is how we keep problems abroad from becoming crises.”

Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh said Saturday that Muslims have the right to condemn “acts of defamation” against Islam without resorting to violence and the destruction of property, according to a statement on the official Saudi Press Agency. The film aimed to create unrest in the Muslim world, he said. Saudi Arabia didn't witness protests against the film.

In Cairo, where calls for a mass rally Friday had raised concerns that violence would escalate in the Arab world's most populous nation, more than 1,000 people - including members of President Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood - headed toward the U.S. embassy after Friday prayers, seeking to calm the situation. They chanted slogans urging an end to four days of fighting between demonstrators and police.

“We will get justice for the prophet, but without blood,” Mazhar Shahine, a prominent cleric, told the crowd, referring to the made-in-America movie that sparked the protests.

Protesters skirmished into the night with police, and Al Jazeera reported two died. Armed militants Friday attacked the headquarters of the Multinational Force & Observers in northern Sinai near the border of Gaza and Israel, wounding three peacekeepers, according to Mohamed Saeed, the head of criminal investigations in north Sinai.

In Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, the police presence was high around the U.S. embassy. An American school adjoining the embassy was ransacked and computers and musical instruments were stolen.

Protesters Friday penetrated the U.S. embassy grounds after scaling the walls, and a cloud of smoke hung over the compound. Tunisian security forces fired shots and entered the embassy grounds, chasing the demonstrators, who didn't get into the main embassy building.

Authorities also battled a fire set by protesters that gutted the American school. A man died Saturday at the Mongi Salem Hospital in Tunis, bringing the death toll to four, Noor al-Deen Harb, general supervisor at the hospital, told reporters.

State television had reported three people were killed and 28 wounded in the clashes. President Moncef Marzouki reacted by asking Tunisians to denounce the violence and groups behind it, Al Arabiya television reported.

A protest against the anti-Muslim film turned violent in Sydney as police used pepper spray on protesters throwing bottles of water and other objects, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported Saturday. At least one person was treated for head injuries during the protest, which spread from outside the U.S. consulate to Martin Place and Hyde Park in the city's central business district, ABC News reported on its website.

In Sudan's capital, Khartoum, Germany's embassy was set afire Friday and crowds also gathered outside U.S. and British missions. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin that all personnel at the embassy in Sudan were safe. While describing the disputed film as “shameful,” he said it “isn't a justification for violence.”

Three protesters were killed near the U.S. embassy in Khartoum when police vehicles ran over them, Al Jazeera reported.

_ With assistance from Deema Almashabi in Riyadh, Jihen Laghmari in Cairo, Soraya Permatasari in Melbourne and Zainab Fattah, Ladane Nasseri and Mohammed Hatem in Dubai.

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