PARIS A firebomb attack gutted the headquarters of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday after it put an image of the Prophet Mohammad on its cover.
This week's edition shows a cartoon of Mohammad and a speech bubble with the words: "100 lashes if you don't die of laughter." It has the headline "Charia Hebdo," in a reference to Muslim sharia law, and says Mohammad guest-edited the issue.
Charlie Hebdo's website on Wednesday appeared to have been hacked and briefly showed images of a mosque with the message "no God but Allah," after which the site was blanked.
Many Muslims object to any representation of Allah or Mohammad, or to irreverent treatment of the Koran, and such incidents have inflamed protests in the past, sometimes violent.
Danish cartoons of Mohammad in 2005 sparked unrest in the Muslim world in which at least 50 people were killed. An American pastor's burning of a copy of the Koran led to protests in Afghanistan in April in which several died.
Police said nobody was injured in the fire that broke out at about 1 a.m. (midnight GMT) in the office building that houses Charlie Hebdo. Windows were broken on the ground floor and first floor and fire damage was visible inside. The Paris prosecutor's office told Reuters that two molotov cocktails had been thrown into the magazine's offices.
"The building is still standing. The problem is there's nothing left inside," Stephane Charbonnier, editor of Charlie Hebdo, told Europe 1 radio.
MUSLIM LEADERS CALL FOR CALM
The main representative body of the Muslim faith in France, the French Muslim Council (CFCM), denounced the attack while also faulting the satirical publication.
"The CFCM deplores the deeply mocking tone of the newspaper toward Islam and its prophet, but reaffirms with force its total opposition to any act or form of violence," it said in statement.
About 5 million Muslims live in France, a country of about 65 million people.
Tareq Oubrou, head of the Association of Imams of France, also condemned the attack. "This is an inadmissible act," he told French TV station i>tele.
"Freedom is very important. It is nonetheless important to underline the sensitivity of the situation we face today.
"I call on Muslims to treat this lucidly and not succumb to what they consider as provocations regarding their religion ... I personally call on Muslims to keep an open mind and not take this too seriously."
In Dubai, the world's largest international Muslim body condemned Charlie Hebdo for publishing the image and a "highly provocative" editorial, but urged restraint among Muslims.
"The publication of the Prophet Muhammad's cartoon, once again substantiated the OIC's concern of the alarming rise of Islamophobia in Europe," Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation, said in a statement.
Charlie Hebdo has got into deep water on similar issues in the past. Former editor Philippe Val was pursued in the French courts on charges of racial injury after its publication of three of the Danish cartoons in 2006. He was acquitted.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
"Freedom of expression is an inalienable value of democracy and any incursion against press freedom must be condemned with the utmost force. No cause justified violent action," French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said in a statement.
French Interior Minister Claude Gueant told reporters at the scene of the blaze that everything would be done to find the perpetrators of the attack.
"You like or you don't like Charlie Hebdo but it's a newspaper. Press freedom is sacrosanct for the French," he said.
The far-right National Front, which campaigns on an anti-immigrant agenda, said the firebombing was an attack on press freedom and on secularism.
"Like religious practice, criticism of religions is free, as long as it does not call for public disturbance or violence," the Front said on its website.
The editor of the left-wing daily Liberation opened his newspaper's office to Charlie Hebdo staff. Writers from Liberation and cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo were working on what they said would be a four-page supplement in Thursday's Liberation, with commentary and drawings about the controversy.
Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Jean Cabut told Reuters that at the time of the Danish controversy, several Charlie Hebdo staff were put under police protection but that it was not yet sure how wide protection would be this time. He added he expected there would at least be protection for editor Charbonnier.
Charbonnier said he plans to maintain the magazine's weekly schedule, with another issue due in the middle of next week.
"In any case, giving ground to the Islamists is out of the question. We will continue," he said.
(Additional reporting by Matthias Blamont, Chine Labbe, Anna Maria Jakubek, Thierry Leveque, Abdoul-Karim Cisse and Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by Geert De Clercq, Andrew Roche and Roger Atwood)