TUNIS — France said Wednesday it would secure its diplomatic missions and close schools in Egypt and Tunisia fearing violence after a French magazine published cartoons of a naked Prophet Mohammed.
The caricatures by the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo have fuelled anger in the Islamic world, already incensed by a crudely-produced anti-Islam film made by Christian extremists in California and posted online last week.
The French embassy in Tunisia announced the temporary closure of French schools there from Wednesday until Monday, while in Egypt the mission decided to shutter schools and French cultural centres from Thursday.
The French foreign ministry in Paris said it would close its embassies and schools on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, in around 20 Islamic countries because of fears of being targeted by angry protesters.
Tunisia's ruling Islamist Ennahda party called for peaceful protests against the cartoons it branded a "new attack" on the Prophet Mohammed.
"Ennahda backs the right of Muslims to protest and calls on the use of peaceful and civilised means," said the party leading the ruling coalition.
In the wave of protests, four people were killed and dozens wounded last Friday when hardline Salafists outside the US embassy in Tunis hurled petrol bombs and stormed the mission, while police fired live rounds and tear gas.
"In the current context, the French community is urged to be vigilant, to avoid all public gatherings and to stay away from sensitive areas," the French embassy said in Tunis. "The French school network and Tunisia's French Institute will be closed from midday on Wednesday... until Monday morning."
"The embassy has asked the relevant Tunisian authorities to strengthen security around its sites," it said, adding that the mission would stay closed on Friday.
Unlike most Arab countries, Tunisia follows the Western weekend, meaning that Thursday and Friday are normal working days.
"It's a preventive measure. We have not received any direct threats," an embassy source told AFP.
There are an estimated 30,000 French citizens living in Tunisia and around 3,000 French children enrolled in Tunisian schools.
The French consulate in Egypt said that "although there has been no specific threat in Egypt, it has been decided as a precaution and as in other countries, to close French schools and cultural centres in Egypt on Thursday.
"The French embassy has also asked Egyptian authorities to continue to ensure the security of all our establishments in the country, by virtue of international conventions."
The French establishments are due to reopen on Sunday, after the Egyptian weekend on Friday and Saturday. The French embassy will remain open Thursday.
Yemeni authorities meanwhile beefed up security around the French mission in Sanaa.
On Wednesday, US ambassador Jacob Walles met Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and asked him to guarantee the security of US interests in Tunisia.
Washington has already evacuated all non-essential embassy staff and family members from Tunisia.
Tunisia's Interior Minister, Ali Larayedh, was questioned by the National Constituent Assembly over the response to Friday's unrest, amid calls for him to quit by numerous opposition MPs.
"We will continue to pursue the people involved in these events," he said, without giving details on the groups being targeted in the investigation, or the progress made.
The hearing was broadcast live on television, and Larayedh said it was not "in the interests of the country that matters of security should be made public, because people would want to exploit that."
So far, four Tunisians have been charged and remanded in custody over Friday's violence, and one person freed on bail.
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