French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed on Wednesday, a move criticized by the French authorities which sent riot police to protect the magazine's offices.
Issues of the magazine hit newsstands with a front cover showing an Orthodox Jew pushing a turbaned figure in a wheelchair with several caricatures of the Prophet on its inside pages, including some of him naked.
France said it would temporarily close its embassies and schools in 20 countries for fear the publication of the caricatures will further inflame tensions over a film mocking the prophet.
"We have indeed decided as a precautionary measure to close our premises, embassies, consulates, cultural centres and schools," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said of the shut-down on Friday, prayer day across the Muslim world.
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The front page cartoon had the wheelchair-bound figure saying "You mustn't mock" under the headline "Untouchable 2", a reference to a hugely popular French movie about a paralyzed rich white man and his black assistant.
The publication came amid widespread outrage over a short film, made with private funds in the United States, that mocks the Prophet and has ignited days of sometimes deadly protests in the Arab world, Africa, Asia and some Western countries.
Magazine cover (Photo: AFP)
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius criticized the move as a provocation and said he had ordered security beefed up at French diplomatic offices in the Muslim world.
Charlie Hebdo's Paris offices were fire bombed last November after it published a mocking caricature of Mohammed. In 2005, Danish cartoons of the Prophet sparked a wave of violent protests across the Muslim world that killed at least 50 people.
Many Muslims consider any representation of Allah or the Prophet Mohammad offensive.
"Is it relevant and intelligent in this environment to add fuel to the fire? The answer is no," Fabius told France Info radio. "I'm very worried... and when I saw this I immediately issued instructions for special security precautions to be taken in all the countries where it could be a problem."
One of Charlie Hebdo's editors (Photo: AFP)
The government has called for restraint over the cartoons, restating the principles of free speech in France and urging those shocked by the images to take action through the courts.
Muslim leaders in France, which has Europe's largest Muslim population, have appealed for calm.
Jean-Marc Ayrault said organizers of the planned demonstration Saturday against the film "Innocence of Muslims" won't receive police authorization for the protest.
Ayrault told French radio RTL on Wednesday that "there's no reason for us to let a conflict that doesn't concern France come into our country. We are a republic that has no intention of being intimidated by anyone."
A wave of protest has swept some Muslim countries over the amateurish video posted online. The total number of deaths linked to unrest over the film is at least 28.
Reuters, AP contributed to the report