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Somali charged in attack on cartoonist

A Somali man is charged with two counts of attempted murder after breaking into the home of a Danish artist whose Prophet Muhammad cartoon outraged the Muslim world.
Image: Kurt Westergaard
Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard poses at his home in Viby near Aarhus, Denmark, on Sept. 15, 2006.Preben Hupfeld / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Somali man with suspected al-Qaida links was charged Saturday with two counts of attempted murder after breaking into the home of a Danish artist whose Prophet Muhammad cartoon outraged the Muslim world three years ago.

The suspect, who was shot twice by a police officer, was rolled into a Danish court on a stretcher, his face covered. He was ordered held for four weeks on preliminary charges of attempting to murder the cartoonist with an ax, as well as the police officer who shot him.

Efforts to protect the artist — 74-year-old Kurt Westergaard — were immediately stepped up, as he was moved to an undisclosed location.

The suspect, described by authorities as a 28-year-old Somali with ties to al-Qaida, allegedly broke into the house late Friday armed with an ax and a knife. The house is in Aarhus, Denmark's second largest city, 125 miles northwest of Copenhagen.

Jakob Scharf, head of Denmark's PET intelligence agency, said Saturday the man might have attacked spontaneously.

"It seems that he acted alone, and maybe it was a sudden decision," Scharf told Danish broadcaster TV2. He was not immediately available for further comment.

24-hour protection
Westergaard, who has been the target of several death threats since depicting the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb-shaped turban, has been under round-the-clock protection by Danish police since February 2008.

When he heard someone trying to break into his home, he pressed an alarm and fled to a specially made safe room. His five-year-old granddaughter was also in the house at the time.

Officers arrived two minutes later and tried to arrest the assailant. He threatened the officers with the ax, and one officer then shot him in the hand and knee, Preben Nielsen of the Aarhus police said.

Nielsen said the man's wounds were serious but not life-threatening.

Westergaard could not be reached for comment, but he told his employer — the Jyllands-Posten newspaper — that the assailant shouted "Revenge!" and "Blood!" as he tried to enter the bathroom where Westergaard had sought shelter.

"It was scary. It was close — really close," he said, according to the newspaper's Web site.

Attack called ‘despicable’
The Somali man, whose name cannot be released because of a court order, was accompanied by a lawyer. He arrived at the court in Aarhus from the hospital where he is being treated, and denied the charges.

"He will be in custody for four weeks, and in isolation for two (of those)," said Chief Superintendent Ole Madsen in Aarhus. He said the suspect would be moved to a prison in Aarhus, which has medical facilities.

Defense lawyer Niels Christian Strauss told reporters outside the court he had urged his client to remain silent to allow more time to examine the evidence.

Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen called the attack "despicable."

"This is not only an attack on Kurt Westergaard but also an attack on our open society and our democracy," he said in a statement.

Cartoon challenge
In 2005, Jyllands-Posten had asked Danish cartoonists to draw Muhammad as a challenge to a perceived self-censorship. Westergaard and 11 other artists did so. Danish and other Western embassies in several Muslim countries were torched in early 2006 by angry protesters who felt the cartoons had profoundly insulted Islam.

Islamic law generally opposes any depiction of the prophet, even favorable, for fear it could lead to idolatry.

Westergaard remains a potential target for extremists nearly five years later: His cartoon is viewed as the most provocative, and he is the only of the twelve cartoonists to live under round-the-clock protection.

Authorities declined comment on whether security for other cartoonists had been tightened.

The Somali man had won an asylum case and received a residency permit to stay in Denmark, Scharf said. He called the Friday attack terror-related.

"The arrested man has, according to PET's information, close relations to the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab and al-Qaida leaders in eastern Africa," Scharf said. "(The attack) again confirms the terror threat that is directed at Denmark and against the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard in particular."

Scharf said the man is suspected of having been involved in terror-related activities in east Africa and had been under PET's surveillance, but not in connection with Westergaard.

In Somalia, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, a spokesman for the Somali group al-Shabab, denied the man was member of the group, but supported his alleged attack on the cartoonist.

"We welcome the brave action he did," Rage said. "It was a good and brave step taken by that Somali man against the criminal cartoonist — we liked it."

He described Westergaard as "the devil who abused our Prophet Muhammad" and called on "all Somalis in Denmark and around the world to target him and the people like him, too."

Westergaard has received previous death threats and was the subject of an alleged assassination plot.

In October, terrorism charges were brought against two Chicago men who allegedly planned to kill him and the newspaper's former cultural editor. That trial has not yet begun.

In 2008, Danish police arrested two Tunisian men suspected of plotting to kill Westergaard. Police failed to substantiate the charges and neither suspect was prosecuted. One was deported and the other was released Monday after an immigration board rejected PET's efforts to expel him from Denmark.

Throughout the crisis three years ago, then-Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen distanced himself from the cartoons but resisted calls to apologize for them, citing freedom of speech and saying his government could not be held responsible for the actions of Denmark's press.

An umbrella organization for moderate Muslims in Denmark condemned the Friday attack.

"The Danish Muslim Union strongly distances itself from the attack and any kind of extremism that leads to such acts," the group said in a statement.