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Middle east

Egypt on high alert after Israeli embassy riot

Video by Nicholas RUSHWORTH

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-09-10

Egyptian authorities declared a state of alert Saturday after violent protesters staged an overnight rampage at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, forcing the ambassador to flee and exacerbating already rocky relations between the two countries.

AP – The storming of the Israeli embassy by a mob of Egyptian protesters inflicted a “severe injury to the fabric of peace” between the two countries, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Saturday.

The ambassador and the entire embassy staff except for one deputy ambassador were evacuated from Egypt along with their families in the face of the overnight rampage at the Nile-side embassy in Cairo, when hundreds of protesters tore down a concrete security wall outside the building, set fires in the street and dozens broke into an office of the embassy tossing documents off the balcony to the crowd below.
 
The hours of rioting that extended into the pre-dawn hours significantly added to the already growing tensions between the two Mideast neighbors, seven months after the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Many in Israel fear that this year’s uprisings around the Arab world are giving freer rein to anti-Israeli sentiment.
 
But Netanyahu tempered his remarks and praised Egyptian authorities for rescuing six embassy personnel who were trapped by the rioting.
 
The six staffers – apparently a security detail in offices that were otherwise empty on what is a weekend night here – had taken shelter in a room in the embassy and at one point there was only a single wall between them and protesters who were ransacking offices, said a senior Israeli official. Egyptian commandos eventually made their way in and got them out, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the incident.
 
An aide to Netanyahu said on Saturday that the Israeli leader denounced the attack as a “serious incident” and a “blatant violation of international norms.”
 
“The fact that the Egyptian authorities acted with determination and rescued our people should be noted and we extend them our thanks,” Netanyahu said, accord to the aide who heard his remarks. He said it “could have been worse had the rioters managed to get through the last door and hurt our people.”
 
“However, Egypt must not ignore the severe injury to the fabric of peace with Israel and such a blatant violation of international norms,” he said, according to the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press.
 
Mubarak was a close ally of the Israelis, building economic ties and cooperating with them on security – particularly helping in the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Since his Feb. 11 fall in the face of unprecedented protests, ties between the two countries have steadily worsened as Egypt’s new military rulers ease off his pro-Israeli policies in the face of their widespread public unpopularity.
 
Anger increased last month after Israeli forces responding to a cross-border Palestinian militant attack mistakenly killed five Egyptian police officers near the border. The militants, apparently from Gaza, had trekked across Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and sneaked into Israel, killing eight Israelis.
 
At the time, Cairo protesters demanded the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and calls grew in Egypt for ending the historic 1979 peace treaty with Israel, a pact never supported by ordinary Egyptians.
 
Protests at the embassy, located discreetly in the top floors of a residential building overlooking the Nile, have increasingly coincided with rounds of demonstrations by Egyptians criticizing the military for its handling of the post-Mubarak transition. On Friday, activists held their first such protests in a month in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other Egyptian cities.
 
The overnight rioting is likely to further sour relations between the ruling military generals and the youth groups who engineered the 18-day uprising that ousted the Egyptian leader and subsequent anti-military protests. Most of those groups quickly distanced themselves from the storming of the embassy, saying they were not involved.
 
The Health Ministry said three people were killed and more than 1,000 people hurt during the street clashes between the protesters and police outside the embassy that began after midnight and lasted until nearly 6 a.m. on Saturday. A total of 19 protesters were arrested. Police and army troops fired tear gas and shot live ammunition in the air trying to disperse the crowd of thousands, as cars, police vehicles and trees on the streets were set ablaze.
 
Saturday morning, the streets around the embassy were littered with debris, shattered glass and rocks. Dozens of police vehicles lined up the streets leading to the embassy and the nearby police headquarters in Giza. Several charred bodies of private cars sat motionlessly on side streets, with some still smoldering. Black clad, anti-riot police backed by army troops and their armored vehicles were deployed in large numbers in streets surrounding the embassy.
 
The unrest began Friday afternoon when hundreds of protesters tore down a concrete security wall that Egyptian authorities had recently erected outside the embassy building in reaction to the repeated protests there. For hours, young men battered the wall with sledgehammers, ripping off chunks with their bare hands. Protesters were able to get to the top of the building and pull down the Israeli flag, which they replaced with the Egyptian flag.
 
Police did nothing to stop them, nor did they take any visible action when a group of around 30 protesters stormed into the building after nightfall and made their way up toward the Israeli Embassy on the upper floors. They reached a room on one of the embassy’s lower floors and began dumping Hebrew-language documents from the windows.
 
The Israeli ambassador, Yitzhak Levanon, his family and nearly all the staff and their dependents – some 80 people – were evacuated out of the country by military aircraft overnight, according to another Israeli official. Only the deputy ambassador was still in Egypt, added the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
 
Mustafa Sayid said he was among the group of protesters who broke into the embassy. He showed a reporter cell phone video footage he said he recorded inside of young men ransacking the room.
 
The group got into the building through a third-floor window and climbed the stairs to the embassy. They worked for hours to break through three doors to enter the embassy, said the 28-year-old man. They encountered three Israelis and beat one of them.
 
During the rioting, President Barack Obama assured Netanyahu that the U.S. was acting “at all levels” to resolve the situation. Israeli Defense Minster Ehud Barak said in a statement that he also spoke with his American counterpart, Leon Panetta, and appealed to him to do what he could to protect the embassy.
 

 

 

Date created : 2011-09-10

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