WASHINGTON — U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, an Arkansas native, was not in danger when a group of protesters scaled the wall of the U.S. embassy in Cairo and tried to burn the American flag.
A State Department officials said Patterson, a native of Fort Smith, was in Washington, D.C. on unrelated business Tuesday evening during the Cairo protest, which preceded a deadly assault at the American consulate in neighboring Libya that left four dead, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya John Christopher Stevens.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., issued a statement Wednesday strongly condemning the “senseless and heinous attack on our diplomatic corps in Libya,” adding there is “absolutely no excuse for these unprovoked attacks.”
In a separate statement, Boozman said the protests in Egypt touched close to home. He and Patterson graduated from Northside High School in Fort Smith.
“She is a woman who has devoted her career to public service and sharing the ideals of our nation throughout the world. We are committed to protecting the safety of Ambassador Patterson and her staff,” Boozman said.
U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., told reporters Wednesday he was certain security would be beefed up at the Cairo embassy as well as other overseas offices.
“I’m sure they are on higher alert today than two or three days ago,” Pryor said. “We want to keep our folks safe.”
Middle East Institute President Wendy Chamberlain, a former ambassador to Pakistan, said Wednesday that embassies rely on the host nation to protect them from major assaults as was seen in Benghazi, Libya.
When a threat is perceived, she said, the embassy “goes into lock down” with secured doors and safe havens inside the embassy to protect staff.
President Barack Obama directed an increase in security at U.S. diplomatic posts around the world. The Defense Department has sent two Marine antiterrorism security teams to Libya and the FBI has opened an investigation into the deaths.
In Cairo, relatively few embassy employees were inside when the protesters hopped the wall because many had gone home early. Later in the evening, the Egyptian military sealed the entrances to the embassy to secure it from the ongoing protest, the Washington Post reported.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo was closed Wednesday. A statement posted on its website urged U.S. citizens to avoid areas where large gatherings may occur and that the security situation in Egypt remains fluid.
“Even demonstrations or events intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence. U.S. citizens in Egypt are urged to monitor local news reports to plan their activities accordingly,” the embassy wrote.
According to news reports, protesters had gathered outside the U.S. compounds in Benghazi and Cairo reportedly outraged by an anti-Muslim film posted on websites including YouTube that depict Prophet Muhammad as a child molester, womanizer and ruthless killer.
Chamberlain said she had viewed some clips from the movie and was offended by them.
“If you watch the YouTube splices it is reprehensible, disgusting and highly provocative and emotional to anybody of any religion,” she said. “Any decent person who sees this film would immediately want to apologize.”
Before the violence erupted Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo had issued a statement condemning the film.
“We firmly reject the actions of those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,” it read in part.
The statement drew a sharp rebuke from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who issued an early statement saying it was “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.”
Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama re-election campaign, issued a countering statement saying the campaign was “shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Gov. Romney would choose to launch a political attack.”
The statement has been removed from the Cairo embassy website. The White House also distanced itself from the statement, saying it was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government.
Pryor said he would hope no one would exploit the attacks overseas for political gain here at home.
“We need to focus on supporting the folks we have abroad,” Pryor said.