PARIS - France's prime minister condemned an apparent arson attack early on Wednesday that destroyed the offices of a satirical French newspaper that had “invited” the Prophet Muhammad as a guest editor this week.
A police official said the blaze broke out overnight at the offices of Charlie Hebdo weekly, and the exact cause remains unclear. No injuries were reported. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because an investigation into the fire is under way.
Police cited a witness saying that someone was seen throwing two firebombs at the building.
The newspaper director, who goes by the name Charb, said the fire was triggered by a Molotov cocktail. He blamed “radical stupid people who don't know what Islam is,” for the apparent attack.
“I think that they are themselves unbelievers ... idiots who betray their own religion,” Charb said in an interview with Associated Press Television News.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon called on the authorities to find those responsible and bring them to justice.
“Freedom of expression is an inalienable value of our democracy .... No cause can justify a violent action,” Fillon said in a statement.
The front-page of the weekly, subtitled “Sharia Hebdo,” a reference to Islamic law, showed a cartoon-like man with a turban, white robe and beard smiling broadly and saying, in an accompanying bubble, “100 lashes if you don't die laughing.”
Newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in 2005 by a Danish newspaper triggered protests in Muslim countries.
The president of an umbrella group representing France's Muslim community - at some 5 million the largest in western Europe - also condemned the apparent attack.
Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, said his organization also deplores “the very mocking tone of the paper toward Islam and its prophet but reaffirms with force its total opposition to all acts and all forms of violence.”
Islamic law generally opposes any depiction of the prophet, even favourable, for fear it could lead to idolatry.
Charb said the current issue, which appeared on newsstands Wednesday morning - after the fire - was centred on last week's victory of a once-banned Islamist party in Tunisia's first free elections and last month decision by Libya's new leaders that Sharia, or Islamic legislation, will be the main source of law in post-Gadhafi Libya.
“It was a joke where the topic was to imagine a world where Sharia would be applied,” Charb told APTN. “But since everyone tells us not to worry about Libya or Tunisia, we wanted to explain what would be a soft version of Sharia, a Sharia applied in a soft manner.”
A police official said the fire, at about 1 a.m. (2400 GMT), was quickly contained, but a large part of new offices on two levels were heavily damaged and equipment used by journalists to produce the paper were inoperable, a police official said.
Piles of scorched papers and equipment were seen at the weekly and its website was down.
“Our offices were burned by a cocktail Molotov that was thrown inside .... The fire propagated and luckily the firefighters intervened in time before the whole building was burned,” Charb told APTN.
The director vowed to continue publishing and Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe said the city would help the publication find a new office space. Delanoe condemned “this demonstration of hate and intolerance.”
Technicians from the police lab began their investigation several hours after the fire, taking fingerprints and various samples from the site of the paper.
Newspaper employees said they had received numerous threats as a result of the issue.
Page two of the issue is made up of a series of cartoons featuring women in burqas, the face-covering robes. And the paper's tongue-in-cheek editorial, signed “Muhammad,” follows on page three, centred on the victory last week of Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party in the nation's first free election - and saying that the party's real intention is imposing Islam not democracy.
Each page contains “a word from Muhammad” in the corner and spoofs the news by twisting it into the weekly's current theme. On the last page, a turbaned and bearded man with a clown-like red nose says: “Yes, Islam is compatible with humour.”