Israel: Egypt embassy attack is 'blow' to ties

Associated Press
An elderly man runs past flaming vehicles outside the building housing the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Sept. 9, 2011. A group of about 30 protesters broke into the embassy Friday and dumped hundreds of documents out of the windows after a day of demonstrations outside the building in which crowds swinging sledge hammers and using their bare hands tore apart the embassy's security wall. (AP Photo)
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CAIRO (AP) — A senior Israeli official on Saturday denounced an overnight attack on his country's embassy in Cairo as a "blow to peaceful relations" between the two Mideast neighbors, adding to already growing tensions between the two nations six months after the ouster of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Israel's closest Arab ally.

Egypt put its police force on a state of alert after the overnight violence during which angry protesters broke into the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, tearing down a cement barrier around the high-rise building and trapping six staff members inside. The protesters dumped Hebrew language documents out of the embassy's windows.

The rampage, in which hundreds were injured, further worsened already deteriorating ties between Israel and post-Mubarak Egypt.

The Israeli ambassador, his family and most of the staff and their dependents — some 80 people — were evacuated out of the country by military aircraft overnight, the Israeli official said.

Only the deputy ambassador was still in Egypt, added the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

"That the government of Egypt ultimately acted to rescue our people is noteworthy and we are thankful," the official said. "But what happened is a blow to the peaceful relations, and of course, a grave violation of accepted diplomatic behavior between sovereign states."

Outside the Nile-side Israeli embassy in Cairo's neighborhood of Giza, thousands of protesters battled riot police and army troops into the early morning hours, hurling rocks at them. The police and army troops responded with tear and firing live ammunition into the air to try and disperse the crowd.

Several cars, police vehicles and trees on the streets outside the embassy were set ablaze. The violence subsided by around 6 a.m.

The state MENA news agency said 837 people were injured in the overnight clashes, including at least 46 policemen, while 19 protesters were arrested.

Earlier on Friday, hundreds of protesters tore down the embassy's security wall with sledgehammers and their bare hands. After nightfall about 30 protesters stormed into the embassy.

Just before midnight, the mob reached a room on one of the embassy's lower floors at the top of the building and began dumping Hebrew-language documents from the windows, said an Egyptian security official.

In Jerusalem, an Israeli official said the protesters reached a waiting room on the lower floor. Israel's ambassador, Yitzhak Levanon, his family and other embassy staff were rushed to Cairo airport and left on a military plane for Israel, said Egyptian airport officials.

All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information or speak to the media.

Since the February fall of Mubarak — who worked closely with the Israelis in his 29 years in power — ties have steadily worsened between the two countries.

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, Egypt nearly withdrew its ambassador from Israel, and Cairo protesters demanded the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador. Calls have also grown in Egypt for ending the historic 1979 peace treaty with Israel, a pact never supported by ordinary Egyptians.

Several large protests have taken place outside the Israeli embassy in recent months but without serious incidents.

The attack on Friday came as Egyptians held their first significant demonstrations in a month against the country's military rulers, with thousands gathering in Cairo and other cities. Alongside those gatherings, a crowd massed outside the Israeli Embassy building.

Tensions quickly escalated, with the crowd pummeling the graffiti-covered security wall with sledgehammers and tearing away large sections of the cement and metal barrier, which was recently put up by Egyptian authorities to better protect the site from protests.

For the second time in less than a month, protesters were able to get to the top of the building and pull down the Israeli flag, which they replaced it with the Egyptian flag.

Crowds outside the building photographed documents that drifted to the ground and posted some of them online.

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.

It was not until several hours later that Egyptian police and military forces firing tear gas moved in to try to disperse the protesters from around the embassy. By that time, the crowds of youths had swelled to several thousand. Protesters were cleared from inside the building but held their ground outside, lobbing firebombs at the forces and setting fire to several police vehicles.

The military moved about 20 tanks and troop transport trucks into the area. State radio reported that one person died of a heart attack.

In Washington, President Barack Obama assured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the U.S. was acting "at all levels" to resolve the situation.

Obama expressed "great concern" about the situation, the White House said.

Senior Israeli officials were holding discussions on the embassy breach. 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.

The demonstrations against Israel coincide with increasing discontent among Egyptians with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took control of the country when Mubarak was forced out on Feb. 11 after nearly three decades in power.

Several thousand massed Friday in Cairo's Tahrir Square, as well as in the cities of Alexandria, Suez and elsewhere. Demonstrators in Cairo also converged on the state TV building, a central courthouse and the Interior Ministry, a hated symbol of abuses by police and security forces under Mubarak. Protesters covered one of the ministry's gates with graffiti and tore off parts of the large ministry seal.

Seven months after the popular uprising that drove Mubarak from power, Egyptians are still pressing for a list of changes, including more transparent trials of former regime figures accused of corruption and a clear timetable for parliamentary elections.

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Hadid reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press Writer Aya Batrawy in Cairo contributed to this report.

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