Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, and three other staff members from the American consulate in Benghazi were killed in a rocket attack perpetrated by protesters angry over an American-made film depicting the Prophet Mohammad in an unflattering light.
According to a Libyan official who spoke with Reuters, ambassador Stevens, 52, was visiting the city when the attack occurred, and was killed while being driven away from the scene in search of a safer location. "The American ambassador and three staff members were killed when gunmen fired rockets at them," the official said.
Al Jazeera, meanwhile, reports that Stevens died of smoke inhalation after protesters stormed the consulate and set fire to one of the buildings.
President Obama has since confirmed the Stevens' death in a statement released a short while ago.
"I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens," the president said in his statement.
He went on to call Stevens "a courageous and exemplary representative of the United States," and condemned both "efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others" as well as "the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants."
Stevens was the first US ambassador killed in the line of duty since US Ambassador to Afghanistan Adolph Dubs in 1979.
The identity of one of the three other victims was released by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith, who had been with the State Department for ten years.
The consulate attack, which followed violent protests in Egypt during which the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was stormed and the American flag was replaced with one exalting Islam and Muhammad, was reportedly incited by a 14-minute trailer for a film entitled Innocence of Muslims, which portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, a child molester, a homosexual, and a buffoon, among other characteristics meant to insult.
Californian Sam Bacile, the Israeli-American real estate developer responsible for the film, told the Wall Street Journal he produced it with $5 million he received from 100 Jewish donors. "Islam is a cancer," Bacile told the Journal. "The movie is a political movie. It's not a religious movie."
The trailer was mentioned in Egyptian media in connection with its use by controversial Florida pastor Terry Jones — who previously made headlines when he threatened to burn the Qur'an — as part of his effort to fashion September 11th as "International Judge Muhammad Day."
Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi called on the United Statement to prosecute the "madman" who made the video, and told demonstrators that "any nonpeaceful activity will be exploited by those who hate Islam to defame the image of Egypt and Muslims."
UPDATE: Libya's interim president Mohammed el-Megarif apologized for the "cowardly" attack, and promised to bring those responsible to justice.
[photo via AP]