x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Iran protesters briefly seize six staff hostage at UK embassy

Britain 'outraged' as Tehran offices smashed and looted by mob before British workers freed.

TEHRAN // Iranian protesters briefly took six British embassy staff hostage yesterday when they stormed two diplomatic compounds in Tehran, smashing windows, hurling petrol bombs and burning the British flag in a protest against sanctions imposed by the UK.

Britain said it was outraged by the attacks, but had no immediate comment on the seizure of its staff who, Iran's semi-official Fars news agency said, were freed by police from a residential complex in north Tehran.

Last night, Iran's foreign ministry expressed regret over the "unacceptable" attacks, which police said would lead to prosecutions.

The foreign ministry expressed "regret for certain unacceptable behaviour by a small number of protesters in spite of efforts by the police".

The attacks come at a time of rising diplomatic tension between Iran and western nations who last week imposed fresh sanctions over Tehran's nuclear programme, which they believe is aimed at achieving the capability of making an atomic bomb.

Iran has said it wants nuclear plants only to generate electricity.

The storming of the embassy is also a sign of political infighting within Iran's hardline rulers with the conservative-led parliament, attempting to force the hand of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and expel the British ambassador.

Several dozen protesters broke away from a crowd of a few hundred outside the main embassy compound in downtown Tehran, broke the locks and went inside.

They pulled down the British flag, burnt it, and put up the Iranian flag. Inside, the demonstrators threw stones and petrol bombs. One waved a framed picture of Queen Elizabeth II, state TV showed.

Others carried the royal crest out through the embassy gate as police stood by, pictures carried by the Fars news agency showed. Demonstrators waved flags symbolising martyrdom and held portraits of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Another group of protesters broke into a second British Embassy compound at Qolhak in north Tehran, the IRNA state news agency said. Once the embassy's summer quarters, the sprawling compound is now used to house diplomatic staff.

Six embassy staff were taken hostage, but were later freed by police, Fars news agency reported. Police appeared to have cleared the demonstrators in front of the main downtown embassy compound, but later clashed with protesters and fired tear gas to disperse them, Fars said.

Protesters nevertheless again entered the compound, Fars said.

The British foreign office said it was outraged. "It is utterly unacceptable and we condemn it," the foreign office said.

Britain said the Iranian government had a duty under international law to protect diplomats and urged Iranian authorities to act with "utmost urgency" to bring the situation under control.

There have been regular protests outside the British Embassy over the years since the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the shah, but never have any been so violent.

The attacks and hostage-taking was reminiscent of the 1979 takeover of the US embassy in Tehran carried out by radical students who held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The US and Iran have cut diplomatic ties ever since.

The attacks followed the rapid approval by Iran's Guardian Council of a parliamentary bill compelling the government to expel the British ambassador in retaliation for the sanctions.

A politician had also warned on Sunday that angry Iranians could storm the British Embassy as they did the US mission in 1979.

* Reuters with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse