Denmark and Norway tell citizens to leave Syria


Denmark and Norway have advised their citizens to leave Syria after protesters set fire to their embassies in Damascus yesterday as protests over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad showed no signs of abating despite calls for calm.

Iran, already embroiled in a dispute with the West over its nuclear programme, said it was reviewing trade ties with countries that have published such caricatures.

Chanting "God is Greatest", thousands of protesters stormed the Danish embassy, burned the Danish flag and replaced it with a flag reading "No God but Allah, Muhammad is His Prophet".

The fire badly damaged the building but no one was hurt as the embassy was closed. Demonstrators also set the Norwegian embassy ablaze. That too was brought under control by firefighters. Police fired teargas to disperse protesters there and also used water hoses to hold back others from storming the French embassy.

Riot police were deployed to protect the US mission.

Denmark has been the focus for Islamic anger because the cartoons that Muslim demonstrators find offensive, including one of the Prophet with a turban resembling a bomb, first appeared in a Danish daily. A small Norwegian Christian newspaper was one of the first outside Denmark to publish the cartoons that have now appeared in papers in Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Spain, Switzerland, Hungary, New Zealand, Norway and Poland.

Denmark's envoy to Damascus, Ole Egberg Mikkelsen, said he tried to warn Syrian authorities about the protest. "I personally told the authorities that a big demonstration was brewing and several times during the morning I requested the authorities ensure the necessary protection of the embassy," he said.

Denmark advised its citizens to leave Syria and said it was pulling out its diplomats. Mr Mikkelsen said some of the 70 or so Danes there had already left. Norway gave similar advice. Sweden, which shares its Syrian embassy with Denmark and Chile, was also dragged into the protests.

The three Nordic countries protested to Syria for failing to protect diplomats. "The principle of diplomatic relations is that diplomats can work safely and the fact that this has been broken is extremely serious," Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere told a news conference in Oslo.

The row has already had an economic impact, with Arab countries boycotting Danish goods. In a new twist, Iran said it was forming a committee "to review trade ties" with countries that published the cartoons. Protests continued throughout the Muslim world in what has developed into a face-off between calls for press freedom and religious respect.

Protesters thronged at the Danish embassy in London. Around 500 students of Islamic seminaries protested in Lahore. Dozens of Palestinian youths tried to storm the office of the European Union in Gaza and pledged to give their "blood to redeem the Prophet". Youths also stormed Germany's nearby representative office.

European leaders have called for calm, expressing deep concern at the violence.

In Denmark, a network of moderate Muslims condemned the attack on the Danish embassy and urged restraint. "This is no longer about the cartoons, the situation is out of control," said group spokesman Naser Khader.

Newspapers have insisted on their right to print the cartoons, citing freedom of speech. But for Muslims, depicting the Prophet Mohammad was offensive.