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France to shut around 20 embassies over Prophet cartoons

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France will close its embassies and schools in around 20 countries Friday because of fears of a hostile reaction to a magazine’s publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, the foreign ministry said Wednesday, amid reports that the website of the French magazine has been hacked.

France said it would secure its diplomatic missions and close schools in Egypt and Tunisia, while Yemeni authorities beefed up security around the French embassy in Sana'a.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius earlier announced that he had ordered special security measures “in all the countries where this could pose a problem.” Demonstrations in the Islamic world often follow Friday prayers.

Meanwhile, the website of Charlie Hebdo is under attack by hackers after the paper published the anti-Islam, the IBTimes UK reported on Wednesday.

A spokesperson form the magazine said hackers have been blocking access to the site since 05:00 am and the attack is still ongoing.

A spokesperson for Charlie Hebdo was quoted by IBTimes UK as saying that the magazine’s staff have received several messages condemning the editorial decision to print cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammed. However no-one has claimed responsibility for the cyber-attack yet.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said earlier Wednesday anyone offended by the cartoons could take the matter to the courts.

But he emphasized France’s tradition of free speech. “We are in a country where freedom of expression is guaranteed, including the freedom to caricature,” he said on RTL radio.

However, Ayrault said that the French government won’t allow street protests against the cartoons.

“The protests are illegal and permits will not be issued,” Ayrault said, according to AFP.

Some Islamic groups in France have called for demonstrations after Charlie Hebdo said it would publish cartoons making fun of the Prophet Mohammed.

Charlie Hebdo’s website crashed on Wednesday after being bombarded with comments that ranged from hate mail to approbation.

Last weekend, French police broke up a gathering of about 200 people near the U.S. embassy protesting an American anti-Islam film.

The cover of Charlie Hebdo shows a Muslim man in a wheelchair being pushed by an Orthodox Jew under the title “Intouchables 2,” referring to a French film about a poor black man who helps an aristocratic quadriplegic.

“If people really feel offended in their beliefs and think there has been an infringement of the law -- and we are in a state where laws must be totally respected -- they can go to court,” Ayrault said.

“There is no reason to allow conflicts that do not concern France into our country.”

The White House on Wednesday questioned the judgment of the French weekly that published cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed, but said the decision was no justification for violence.

“We have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, while adding “it is not in any way justification for violence.”

“We don’t question the right of something like this to be published, we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it,” Carney said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that as yet no decisions had been made regarding U.S. embassies on Friday, as the situation was being evaluated “on a day-today basis.”

“Obviously we’re in very close touch with our French allies as they evaluate their security posture,” she said.

U.S. embassies in Tunis, Tripoli, and Sana’a were closed on Wednesday, she confirmed, and while consulates in the Pakistani cities of Lahore, Peshawar and Karachi were closed the embassy in Islamabad was open.

“We’re talking to the French. I’m obviously not going to get into our security assessment other than to say this is one of the things we’re factoring into our look at security going forward.”

Charlie Hebdo is no stranger to controversy over its handling of issues relating to Islam.

Last year it published an edition “guest-edited” by the Prophet Mohammed that it called Shariah Hebdo. The magazine’s offices in Paris were subsequently fire-bombed.

On Tuesday, the French government has called for restraint. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said any provocation now could only be condemned.

France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population. Calls are already circulating on social networks and the Internet for protests on Saturday over an anti-Islam film that was made with private funds in the United States and posted on the Internet.

In the torrent of violence blamed on the anti-Islam film produced on the U.S. soil, U.S. and other Western embassies have been attacked in cities in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed last week in an attack in Benghazi, and Afghan militants killed 12 people in a suicide attack on Tuesday that they said was in retaliation for the film.

Charlie Hebdo, renowned for its irreverent treatment of the political establishment and public figures, argued that it had the right to uphold that tradition.

Cartoons seen by Reuters that were due to be published on the inside pages of the paper included a series of images, including nude caricatures, poking fun at the Prophet Mohammed.

Many Muslims object to any representation of Allah or the Prophet Mohammed or to irreverent treatment of the Quran.

Charlie Hebdo has got into hot water on similar issues more than once.

Former editor Philippe Val was pursued in French courts on charges of racial injury, and ultimately acquitted, after the paper reprinted the Danish cartoons of Mohammed.