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France on alert over Muslim cartoon

PARIS -- France stepped up security yesterday at its embassies across the Muslim world after a French satirical weekly revived a formula that it has already used to capture attention: Publishing crude, lewd caricatures of Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

Yesterday's issue of Charlie Hebdo, whose offices were firebombed last year, raised concerns that France could face violent protests like the ones that left at least 30 people dead and targeted the United States over an amateur anti-Islam movie.

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. 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 sparked violent protests against U.S. missions from Asia to Africa. In the Lebanese port city of Tyre, tens of thousands marched in the streets yesterday, chanting "Oh, America, you are God's enemy!"

Worried about being targeted, the French government ordered its embassies, cultural centers, schools and other official sites to close Friday -- the Muslim holy day -- in 20 countries. It also immediately shut 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 to French citizens in the Muslim world.

Arab League chief Nabil Elarabi called the cartoons "provocative and disgraceful."

Chief editor Stephane Charbonnier, who has been under police protection for a year, defended the cartoons. "Muhammad isn't sacred to me," he said. "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.

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