(WASHINGTON) — U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed by a “small and savage group” of Libyan militants who stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday.
Stevens, 52, died Tuesday night as 20 gun-wielding attackers descended on the U.S. consulate, firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, Libya’s Deputy Interior Minister Wanis al-Sharif said at a news conference in Benghazi.
Nearly a dozen Americans were inside the consulate at the time, guarded by Libyan security. For nearly 20 minutes the Libyan guards exchanged fire with the attackers, who hurled a firebomb inside. The militants burned down at least one building in the attack.
It’s not clear yet how Stevens died.
Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith died from smoke inhalation during the attack, officials said. Two more Americans, possibly guards who were trying to get Stevens out of the area, were also killed. U.S. officials are still making next of kin notifications.
Clinton on Wednesday praised Stevens, who began working in Libya during the revolt against Moammar Gadhafi. “He risked his life to stop a tyrant and gave his life trying to build a better Libya,” she said.
The attack on the consulate in Benghazi came shortly after protesters in Cairo, Egypt, scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy and tore down the American flag in an angry demonstration against a movie about the life of the Prophet Muhammad, depicting the founder of Islam as a fraud and a womanizer.
Clinton suggested that the movie played a role in the Benghazi attack as well, saying they were “working to determine motivations,” but added, “Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior, along with the protest that took place at our embassy in Cairo yesterday, as a response to inflammatory material posted on Internet.”
The secretary of state said she asked herself “how could this happen in a country we helped liberate and in a city we helped to save from destruction.” But she added that the people who attacked the consulate were a “small and savage group.”
President Obama said in a statement, “I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers.”
“I have directed my administration to provide all necessary resources to support the security of our personnel in Libya, and to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the globe,” the president continued. “While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”
The U.S. Marine Corps is sending a quick response team of 40 into Libya, where the U.S. embassy is in the capital Tripoli.
The group suspected of carrying out the consulate attack is called Ansar al Sharia, according to Libyan sources. But the group, which is close to al Qaeda in ideology and is based in east Libya, has denied responsibility for the attack.
Libyan President Mohammed Yussef Magariaf promised to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in the country, condemned the assault on the embassy and pledged his government’s full cooperation, Clinton said.
Mohammed el-Megarif, Libya’s interim president, apologized to the U.S. on Wednesday for the attack that killed Stevens and vowed to bring the culprits to justice.
The U.S. is now evacuating all Americans from Benghazi who were working with the State Department, and the U.S. is bracing for more attacks in the Middle East.
A senior U.S. official told ABC News the State Department is on alert throughout the region and fears there could be more attacks to come.
Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, said in a statement, “I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
An Obama administration official tells ABC News that “no one in Washington approved that statement before it was released and it doesn’t reflect the views of the U.S. government.”
Clinton said anger over a movie is no excuse for violence.
“Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet,” she said. “The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Euan McKirdy, Bryony Jones and Barry Neild, CNN
Elizabeth Cohen, CNN Newswire