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PARIS -- France stepped up security Wednesday at its embassies across the Muslim world after a French satirical weekly revived a formula it has already used to capture attention: Publishing crude, lewd caricatures of Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
Wednesday's issue of the provocative satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, whose offices were firebombed last year, raised concerns France could face violent protests such as the ones targeting the United States over an amateur video produced in California that have left at least 30 people dead.
The drawings, some of which depicted Muhammad naked and in demeaning or pornographic poses, were met with a swift rebuke by the French government, which warned the magazine could be inflaming tensions, even as it reiterated France's free-speech protections.
The principle of freedom of expression "must not be infringed," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, speaking on France Inter radio.
But he added: "Is it pertinent, intelligent, in this context to pour oil on the fire? The answer is no."
Anger over the film Innocence of Muslims has fuelled violent protests from Asia to Africa. In the Lebanese port city of Tyre, tens of thousands of people marched in the streets Wednesday, chanting "Oh, America, you are God's enemy!"
Worried France might be targeted, the government ordered its embassies, cultural centres, schools and other official sites to close on Friday -- the Muslim holy day -- in 20 countries. It also immediately shut down its embassy and the French school in Tunisia, the site of deadly protests at the U.S. Embassy last week.
The French Foreign Ministry issued a travel warning urging French citizens in the Muslim world to exercise "the greatest vigilance," avoiding public gatherings and "sensitive buildings."
The controversy could prove tricky for France, which has struggled to integrate its Muslim population, Western Europe's largest. Many Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad should not be depicted at all -- even in a flattering way -- because it might encourage idolatry.
Violence provoked by the anti-Islam video, which portrays the prophet as a fraud, womanizer and child molester, began with a Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, then quickly spread to Libya, where an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi left the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration believed the French magazine images "will be deeply offensive to many and have the potential to be inflammatory."
"We don't question the right of something like this to be published," he said, pointing to the U.S. Constitution's protections of free expression. "We just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it."
In a statement, Arab League chief Nabil Elarabi called the cartoons "provocative and disgraceful" and said their publication added complexity to an already inflamed situation. He said the drawings arose from ignorance of "true Islam and its holy prophet."
A lawsuit was filed against Charlie Hebdo hours after the issue hit newsstands, the Paris prosecutor's office said, though it would not say who filed it. The magazine also said its website had been hacked.
Riot police took up positions outside the magazine's offices, which were firebombed last year after it released an edition that mocked radical Islam.
Chief editor Stephane Charbonnier, who publishes under the pen name "Charb" and has been under police protection for a year, defended the cartoons.
"Muhammad isn't sacred to me," he told The Associated Press. "I don't blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don't live under Quranic law."
He said he had no regrets and felt no responsibility for any violence.
"I'm not the one going into the streets with stones and Kalashnikovs," he said. "We've had 1,000 issues and only three problems, all after front pages about radical Islam."
The cartoonist, who goes by the name Luz, also was defiant.
"We treat the news like journalists. Some use cameras, some use computers. For us, it's a paper and pencil," he said. "A pencil is not a weapon. It's just a means of expression."
A small-circulation weekly, Charlie Hebdo often draws attention for ridiculing sensitivity about the Prophet Muhammad.
It was acquitted in 2008 by a Paris appeals court of "publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion" following a complaint by Muslim associations.
The magazine has staked out a sub-genre in France's varied media universe with its cartoons. Little is sacred, and Wednesday's issue also featured caricatures of people as varied as Clint Eastwood, an unnamed Roman Catholic cardinal who looked a bit like Pope John Paul II and French President Franßois Hollande, a staple.
At the demonstration in Lebanon, Nabil Kaouk, deputy chief of Hezbollah's Executive Council, warned the United States and France not to anger Muslims.
"Be careful of the anger of our nation that is ready to defend the prophet," he said. "Our hearts are wounded and our chests are full of anger."
Nasser Dheini, a 40-year-old farmer, said instead of boosting security at its embassies, France should close down the offending magazine.
"Freedom of opinion should not be by insulting religions," said Dheini, carrying his four-year-old son, Sajed.
-- The Associated Press
Anger spreads around world
HERE'S a look at protests and events across the world on Wednesday:
The renewed debate in France about the limits of free expression spread to neighbouring Germany as a group dropped plans to show extracts of the film Innocence of Muslims because of the outcry it has caused.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called on all those "who rightly invoke the right of freedom of speech, to also act responsibly." Speaking in Berlin, Westerwelle said, "the one who now puts more oil on the fire on purpose, with obvious effect, is not the greatest thinker."
The German Embassy in Sudan, which was attacked last week, remains closed and security at the country's embassies in other countries
has been beefed up.
Tens of thousands of people marched in the southern port city of Tyre chanting "Oh America, you are God's enemy," and, "At your service, Muhammad."
The demonstrators were led by Nabil Kaouk, a commander of the militant Hezbollah group, who warned the U.S. and France not to anger Muslims because "our nation that is ready to defend the prophet." The protesters carried the yellow banners of Hezbollah and the green flags of Amal, both Shiite Muslim movements. They dispersed peacefully.
The United States temporarily closed its consulate in the country's third-largest city of Medan because of demonstrations. It was the third consecutive day of protests in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province. About 300 members of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, a pan-Islamic movement, rallied peacefully in front of the consulate in Medan.
Several hundred lawyers protested the anti-Islam video in the capital Islamabad, forcing their way into an area that houses the U.S. Embassy and other foreign missions. The protesters shouted anti-American slogans and burned an American flag after they pushed through a gate, gaining access to the diplomatic enclave before police stopped them. They called for the U.S. ambassador to be expelled from the country, and then peacefully dispersed.
About 300 Muslims protested against the film in the capital Colombo, calling for its U.S.-based creators to be hanged. They carried signs and banners that read, "Ban anti-Islamic film all over the world. U.S. should apologize to Muslims," and chanted, "Hang the producer and director of the film." Protesters also spit upon and walked on U.S. and Israeli flags during the demonstration, which was organized by an Islamic group called Sri Lanka Thaweed Jamath.
Hundreds of university students in the eastern city of Jalalabad staged a protest and burned an effigy of U.S. President Barack Obama before dispersing peacefully.
-- The Associated Press