Armed militants angered by a cartoon drawing of the Prophet Muhammad in several European newspapers surrounded the office of the EU Commission in Gaza and searched hotels for foreigners to kidnap in the West Bank, as outrage over the caricatures spread across the Islamic world on Thursday.
Foreign journalists, diplomats and aid workers began leaving Gaza as gunmen there threatened to kidnap citizens of France, Norway, Denmark and Germany unless the four governments apologize for the newspaper cartoon. Only several dozen foreigners were believed to be in Gaza. Many others had left in recent months, during a spate of abductions of foreign nationals.
In the West Bank city of Nablus, gunmen entered four hotels to search for foreigners to abduct, and warned hotel owners not to host citizens from several European countries. Gunmen said they also searched two apartments, but found no Europeans. The gunmen said foreigners had three days to leave Nablus on their own.
The cartoons, which originally appeared in a Danish newspaper, have been reprinted in other European publication -- a development that has generated a clash between Western and Muslim values.
Many devote Muslims find the cartoons to be deeply offensive, but European defenders describe the carcicatures as a legitmate expression of free speech.
"All countries in Europe should be behind the Danes and Danish authorities to defend the principle that a newspaper can write what it wishes to, even if it offends people," Robert Ménard, the secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, told the New York Times.
In Paris, CBS News correspondent Elaine Cobb reports that newspapers across Europe are backing the Danes, saying it's about freedom of speech. The cartoons have been reprinted in newspapers in France, Germany and Spain. And more promise to do so over the coming days.
The Danish daily Jyllands-Posten originally published the cartoons in September after asking artists to depict Islam's prophet to challenge what it perceived was self-censorship among artists dealing with Islamic issues. A Norwegian newspaper reprinted the images this month.
The depictions include an image of Muhammad wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse, and another portraying him holding a sword, his eyes covered by a black rectangle. Islamic tradition bars any depiction of the prophet to prevent idolatry.
The Jyllands-Posten — which received a bomb threat over the drawings — has apologized for hurting Muslims' feelings but not for publishing the cartoons. Its editor said Wednesday, however, that he would not have printed the drawings had he foreseen the consequences.
Carsten Juste also said the international furor amounted to a victory for opponents of free expression.
"Those who have won are dictatorships in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia, where they cut criminals' hands and give women no rights," Juste told The Associated Press. "The dark dictatorships have won."
This wasn't the view in the Muslim world.
The Supreme Council of Moroccan religious leaders has denounced the drawings, saying "Muslim beliefs cannot tolerate such an attack, however small it may be"
In Turkey, dozens of protesters from a small Islamic party staged a demonstration in front of the Danish Embassy. About 200 riot police watched the crowd from the Felicity Party, which laid a black wreath and a book about Muhammad's life at the gates of the embassy building.
There was also anger in France, which has Western Europe's largest Muslim community with an estimated 5 million people.
Mohammed Bechari, president of the National Federation of the Muslims of France, said his group would start legal proceedings against France Soir because of "these pictures that have disturbed us, and that are still hurting the feelings of 1.2 billion Muslims."
French government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope struck a neutral tone, saying France is "a country that is attached to the principle of secularism, and this freedom clearly should be exercised in a spirit of tolerance and respect for the beliefs of everyone."