Security forces shot tear gas into the crowd and fired their weapons in the air in a desperate attempt to stop the onslaught. At least 28 people were hurt in the clashes.
Protesters burn down Danish mission (Photo: AFP)
Casualties, fires and damage of public property were reported in the violence, which came a day after protesters in neighboring Syria torched the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus.
Thousands of protesters took part in the protest against publication of caricatures of Islam's revered prophet in European newspapers. The protest quickly degenerated into violence when groups of Islamic extremists tried to break through the security barrier, prompting troops to fire tear gas and water cannons from fire engines to try to disperse them, said the official.
Troops also fired repeatedly in the air to keep the protesters away.
Grand Mufti appeals for calm
Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani denounced the violence, saying there were infiltrators among the protesters whose aim is to "harm the stability of Lebanon."
Speaking on Future TV, he appealed for calm and said there were some who were trying to "exploit" the protests to cause trouble and "distort the image of Islam."
The trouble threatened to take a sectarian spin, especially after the protesters began stoning the nearby St. Maroun Church, one of the city's main Maronite Catholic churches, and private property in Ashrafieh, a Christian area near Beirut's commercial district. Muslim clerics on the scene were seen trying to stop the protesters using shields and their hands.
Violent clashes in Beirut (Photo: AFP)
The demonstrators also attacked policemen with stones and set fire to several fire engines, witnesses said. Black smoke was seen billowing from the area. They also burned Danish flags.
There were also reports of protesters attacking the nearby Foreign Ministry, but the reports could not be immediately confirmed.
2,000 troops deployed
Charles Rizk, the minister of justice, speaking on LBC television, called on those influential with the protesters to take action to bring the situation to an end.
"What is the guilt of the citizens of Ashrafieh of caricatures that were published in Denmark? This sabotage should stop," said Rizk, a Christian.
"Those who are committing these acts have nothing to do with Islam or with Lebanon," said Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. "This is absolutely not the way we express our opinions."
Some 2,000 army troops and riot police were deployed around the embassy building in the district of Ashrafieh, close to Beirut's commercial district. The protesters, who
came in buses from all over Lebanon, waved green Islamic flags and banners, some of them reading: "O nation of Muhammad, wake up!"
"There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God!" They shouted as they tried to push their way against riot police to reach the embassy building. Witnesses said.
AFP contributed to the story