British embassy stormed in Iran to international alarm

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Protesters stormed Britain's embassy and another diplomatic compound in Tehran on Tuesday, sparking international alarm and dramatically raising tensions with the West over Iran's nuclear programme.

Protesters remained in both properties, trashing offices, stealing documents and defying police efforts to remove them, according to an AFP journalist and Iranian media at the scene.

Six British diplomats sequestered for more than two hours inside a building in Britain's diplomatic compound in the north of the capital were finally able to get through a crowd of hundreds of protesters after intervention from diplomatic police, the Fars news agency reported.

Inside the embassy in the city centre, several protesters scattered documents and set fire to them, witnesses told AFP.

The demonstrators were showing their anger at Britain's announcement last week that it was cutting off all relations with Iran's financial sector as part of a raft of sanctions coordinated with the United States and Canada.

Iran responded by passing a law Monday to expel Britain's ambassador within the next two weeks. Britain has warned it will act "robustly" if Iran's foreign ministry complies.

Police, who had already chased out a group of more than 20 protesters from the embassy grounds, fired tear gas to try to dislodge the group inside the mission, Fars reported.

The news agency said several protesters were injured, one critically. Several officers were also hurt.

Protesters had ripped down Britain's flag at the embassy, replacing it with Iran's, and broken windows and vandalised buildings and vehicles.

One protester was seen climbing the wall with a looted portrait of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.

Outside the embassy, a crowd of hundreds had chanted "Death to Britain" before being dispersed.

The violent scenes recalled the taking of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 by Islamic students who held 52 diplomats inside hostage for 444 days, leading to the break in US-Iranian diplomatic relations.

Britain reacted with outrage to Tuesday's incursion into its embassy, saying it was "utterly unacceptable and we condemn it." The Foreign Office warned Britons in Iran to stay indoors.

Other nations also condemned the violation of Britain's diplomatic properties, which Iran was responsible for protecting.

"France holds the Iranian authorities responsible for the integrity of all diplomatic missions in Tehran," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.

"Once more, the Iranian regime has shown what little consideration it has for international law," he said.

Russia -- Iran's closest ally -- said the embassy attack was "unacceptable and deserving condemnation."

The foreign ministry in Moscow called on Iranian authorities "to immediately restore order, investigate what happened, and prevent a repetition of such incidents."

The looting of the British embassy came ahead of an EU foreign ministers' meeting on Thursday that was expected to reveal new sanctions against Iran.

The European Union and the United States said on Monday they were considering extra measures to pressure Iran on its nuclear activities.

The West suspects Iran is seeking to build an atomic arsenal -- a fear crystallised in a report by the UN nuclear watchdog this month that strongly suggested Tehran had researched nuclear warheads.

Iran has repeatedly denied its nuclear programme is anything but for peaceful, civilian purposes. It has warned it would respond to any military attack by raining missiles on Israel and Turkey.

© 2011 AFP

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