Violent protests were sweeping across the Muslim world following the bloody attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that led to the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, as U.S. officials say they are sending warships to the coast of the volatile country in an apparent terrorist hunt.
Two marines and a communications officer were also killed dead in the strike in the city of Benghazi.
Also on Wednesday, U.S. officials said one destroyer, the USS Laboon, moved to a position off the coast of Libya, and the USS McFaul is en route and should be stationed off the coast within days.
The officials say the ships, which carry Tomahawk missiles, do not have a specific mission. But they give commanders flexibility to respond to any mission ordered by the president.
The destroyers have crews totaling about 300. There have been four destroyers in the Mediterranean for some time. These moves will increase that to five.
Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss troop movements.
But as tensions rise outside Libya, the response to a film produced in the U.S. that depicts Prophet Mohammed is sending shockwaves through the Muslim world.
In Cairo, protests continued into early Thursday morning near Tahrir Square, the site of Egypt’s massive uprising last year.
With further street violence and demonstrations expected across the Middle East, Britain, the U.S. and their European allies stepped-up security at their embassies and consulates.
On Wednesday night, there were protests outside U.S. diplomatic buildings in countries including Tunisia, Sudan, Morocco and Egypt.
In Tunis, the Tunisian capital, police fired teargas and rubber bullets into the air to disperse a protest.
Around 200 protesters, many of whom had long beards, burned U.S. flags and chanted slogans such as “Obama, Obama, we are here for the triumph of Islam”.
It is believed that the attacks were part of a coordinated ambush by terrorists using a pro-Islam protest as cover.
The victims died during a rocket attack when an armed mob set fire to the consulate in Benghazi after joining a protest over a “blasphemous” film about the Prophet Mohammed.
It was also revealed on Wednesday that Ambassador Christopher Stevens and information technology specialist Sean Smith were killed during an attempt by U.S. forces to evacuate staff from a safe house, Libya’s Deputy Interior Minister Wanis Al-Sharif said.
U.S. consular staff was moved to the safe house after an attack on the consul building in the eastern city of Benghazi in which the ambassador was killed, minister Wanis Al-Sharif told a news conference.
A plane with U.S. security units arrived from Tripoli to evacuate other staff but militants discovered the location of the safe house, he said.
“It was supposed to be a secret place and we were surprised the armed groups knew about it. There was shooting,” he said.
Two American security personnel were killed in the shooting, Wanis Al-Sharif said. Two other people were killed and between 12 and 17 wounded.
It is believed a “small, vicious group” of attackers used the protest as a diversion, although questions remain over whether the killers drummed up support for the march or simply took advantage of it, an official told CNN.
While it is not known exactly who was responsible for the rampage, a London think tank with strong ties to Libya said Christopher Stevens, who is not believed to have been targeted, could have been the victim of a revenge attack by al Qaeda.
U.S. officials, describing their preliminary understanding of the incident, told Reuters that the attack began at roughly 10:00 p.m. local time on Tuesday, with Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith and one security officer trapped under fire in the burning consulate building.
“They became separated from each other due to the heavy dark smoke while they were trying to evacuate the burning building,” one senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The security officer made it outside, and returned with help to search for the missing U.S. diplomatic personnel.
The assault “came to avenge the death of Abu Yaya al-Libi, al Qaeda’s second in command killed a few months ago” in Pakistan, think tank Quilliam told CNN, noting the rocket-propelled grenade launchers used in the attack do not normally appear at peaceful protests.