Protesters storm British embassy in Iran

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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.

Young men chanting "Death to Britain" entered both properties, trashing offices, stealing documents and violently defying police efforts to remove them for several hours, according to an AFP journalist and Iranian media.

Six British diplomats sequestered for more than two hours inside a building in Britain's diplomatic compound in the north of the capital by hundreds of protesters were finally freed when diplomatic police intervened, the Fars news agency reported.

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

The incursions only came to an end late Tuesday when special police units were deployed.

Britain reacted with outrage to the invasion of its embassy, saying it was "utterly unacceptable and we condemn it." The Foreign Office warned Britons in Iran to stay indoors.

The United States, which cut off diplomatic ties to Iran after students stormed its own embassy in 1979, taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, was vigorous in criticising the events.

"The United States condemns in the strongest terms the storming of the British Embassy in Tehran," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

"We urge Iran to fully respect its international obligations, to condemn the incident, to prosecute the offenders, and to ensure that no further such incidents take place either at the British Embassy or any other mission in Iran," he said.

Other nations also condemned the violation of Britain's diplomatic properties, with UN Security Council envoys meeting over the incident ahead of releasing a statement.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the embassy storming generated "extreme concern."

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said that "once more, the Iranian regime has shown what little consideration it has for international law."

He emphasised that Iran was responsible for protecting all diplomatic missions in Tehran.

Russia -- Iran's closest ally -- called the embassy attack "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."

Iranian authorities responded quickly to the international outcry.

The foreign ministry issued a statement expressing "regret for certain unacceptable behaviour by a small number of protesters."

It emphasised what it said was the Iranian government's commitment "to protecting the rights of diplomats and diplomatic locations."

Tehran police chief General Hossein Sajadinia said several protesters had been arrested and would face the courts.

Tuesday's demonstration had been organised days earlier, when Iranian lawmakers passed a law to kick out Britain's ambassador in retaliation for London's announcement last week that it was cutting off all relations with Iran's financial sector.

The measure was part of a raft of sanctions coordinated with the United States and Canada to pressure Iran over its nuclear programme, which Western nations fear is being used to build an atomic arsenal.

Britain has warned it will act "robustly" if its ambassador is expelled. Its embassy on Monday had called on Iranian authorities "to ensure that British embassy staff and premises in Iran are adequately protected" during Tuesday's protest.

The demonstration started with hundreds of protesters gathering in the street outside the embassy.

A smaller group clambered up the wall and got inside, ripping down Britain's flag and replacing it with Iran's, and breaking windows and trashing offices and vehicles.

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

After initial inaction, police went in repeatedly to chase out the protesters, finally succeeding after firing tear gas, according to the Fars news agency.

Several protesters were injured, one critically. Several officers were also hurt.

Between 100 and 300 protesters got into Britain's other compound in the north of Tehran, blocking the six British diplomats and taking what they said were "espionage" documents that they set fire to.

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

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

The West's suspicions that Iran was seeking an atomic bomb were crystallised in a report by the UN nuclear watchdog this month that strongly suggested Tehran had researched nuclear warheads.

Iran has repeatedly said its nuclear programme has only peaceful, civilian purposes, and has warned it would respond to any military attack by raining missiles on Israel and Turkey.

© 2011 AFP

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