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Media and Prime Minister rally around cartoonist

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16:45 CEST+02:00
The Swedish media and the Prime Minister rallied Sunday behind a cartoonist whose depiction of the Islamic prophet as a dog earned him death threats from Al-Qaeda in Iraq, as Swedish companies braced for a backlash.

Cartoonist Lars Vilks said he was ready to die after extremists in Iraq offered $150,000 to anyone who slit his throat or $100,000 for his murder by other means.

"We must not give in," he was quoted as saying in the Dagens Nyheter daily which republished the cartoon in small format on Sunday.

"I'm starting to grow old. I could die at any time - it's not a catastrophe," he said.

Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt on Sunday sought to defuse tensions and urged "reflection" after talks with local Islamic leaders.

"We are appealing for calm, we are appealing for reflection, we reject these calls to violence and we reject any attempts to aggravate the situation," the Moderate Party leader told the domestic TT news agency.

He underscored Sweden's commitment to freedom of speech and expression, echoing the local media on Sunday.

The group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq, otherwise known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, also put $50,000 dollars on the head of Ulf Johansson, editor in chief of the Nerikes Allehanda newspaper which published the caricature.

Swedish media condemned the threats, issued through the internet on Saturday in the form of a statement in the name of the group's purported leader, Sheikh Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

"We live in a country where freedom of expression is not dictated by fundamentalists, nor by governments," wrote Dagens Nyheter chief editor Thorbjörn Larsson in an editorial.

"Dagens Nyheter has already published the cartoon. To me, publishing it was the obvious thing to do."

The cartoon featuring the Prophet Mohammed's head on a dog's body was originally published in Nerikes Allehanda on August 18th and immediately provoked protests by Muslims in the western town of Örebro, where the paper is based.

Islam considers idolatry blasphemous and the depiction of Muhammad in any pictorial form is strictly forbidden.

Cartoons of Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb sparked violent protests by Muslims around the world after they were published in Denmark's biggest daily more than a year ago.

Danish trade and business interests in Muslim countries were also harmed.

But the Svenska Dagbladet daily urged Swedes to defend their right to free speech in the face of threats from religious fanatics.

"The Swedish media must wake up to (defend) freedom of expression," it said.

"Freedom of expression is not a privilege for the media companies and journalists but a guarantee that citizens can have different impressions, numerous sources of information and inspiration as well as the possibility to draw their own conclusions."

Vilks was in Germany at the weekend where he heads an art association, but returned to Sweden on Sunday afternnon. He has reportedly received police protection and is discussing his security options with the authorities.

The extremists' statement called for the "liquidation of the cartoonist Lars who offended our prophet."

"We announce a reward of $100,000 to anyone who kills this infidel criminal. This reward will be raised to $150,000 if his throat is slit," said the statement whose authenticity could not be verified.

It also threatened attacks on Swedish firms including Ericsson, Scania, Volvo, IKEA and Electrolux unless Swedish "crusaders" issued an apology.

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