The editor of a Danish newspaper which printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed apologized on Monday as anger spread throughout the Muslim world, threatening trade and security repercussions for Nordic countries.
"These cartoons were not in violation of Danish law but have irrefutably offended many Muslims, and for that we apologize," wrote Jyllands-Posten, daily editor-in-chief Carsten Juste, in a letter to the Petra news agency in Jordan.
Published last September, the 12 cartoons included portrayals of the Prophet wearing a time-bomb shaped turban and showed him as a knife-wielding nomad flanked by shrouded women.
Initially passing with little comment, they were later reprinted in a Norwegian magazine, prompting an international uproar and calls for an apology from leading Muslims. Muslims regard images of the prophet as blasphemous.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who has refused to apologize on behalf of the Danish people, was quick to welcome the editor's contrition as protests continued against Danish interests in the Middle East.
"It delights me enormously that Jyllands-Posten took this evening a very essential step," he said on DR1 public television.
The prime minister also said that he hoped the move would "contribute constructively to a solution" to this crisis.
"It is normal in a society where the press is free and independent that the solution comes above all from the media, because it is not the government which writes the newspapers," he said.
He said the intensity of the anger from the Islamic world had taken him by surprise.
"We must note that what happened was something that really made spirits boil, deeply hurting many people who felt their religion had been violated," he said.
Earlier on Monday the prime minister had reiterated that he personally respected all religions but defended the freedom of the press, a line strongly supported by the EU.
"I could never have presented Mohammed, Jesus or other religious figures in a manner which could be insulting to others," he said.
The Muslim world's two main political bodies -- the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League -- said on Sunday they were seeking a UN resolution, backed by possible sanctions, to protect religions in response to the furore.
Danish embassies in the Middle East have been the scenes of protests, a Danish flag was burnt by angry Palestinian demonstrators in the Gaza Strip and Gulf retailers have pulled Danish products off their shelves.
Saudi Arabia has recalled its ambassador to Denmark, prompting the European Commission to warn of action through the WTO if the Saudi government supported a boycott of Danish products.
An Iraqi militant group called the Army of Mujahedeen (holy warriors) meanwhile called its members to attack Danish targets.
The EU's Austrian presidency rallied on Monday to the defense of press freedom as "part of our fundamental values," Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik told journalists.
"We have equally referred to the religious beliefs that are to be respected in our societies as fundamental values as well," she said.
In Norway, a foreign ministry spokesman denied reports that the government had asked its diplomats to apologize to Muslim countries: "We have not asked our diplomats to apologize for the publication of these cartoons, but to apologize for the agitation they have created."