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Egypt says committed to protecting embassies and upholding emergency law

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Egypt affirmed on Saturday it was committed to protecting all embassies in Cairo following an overnight attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo and said it would send those who incited or took part in the violence to a emergency state security court.

“Egypt affirms its total commitment to respecting international conventions, including the protection of all (diplomatic) missions” Information Minister Osama Heikal said in a televised message.

He also said that authorities would apply “all articles of the emergency law to ensure safety” following the embassy attack.

Egypt will “take legal measures to transfer those in custody and those who are found to be involved in inciting or participating in (Friday’s) events to the emergency state security court,” the minister said after a meeting of a ministerial crisis group and talks with Egypt’s military ruler.

On Saturday, Egypt had declared a state of alert after protesters stormed the building housing Israel’s embassy and clashed with police, while Israel said six of its staff were escorted to safety by Egyptian commandos.

Israel flew its ambassador home after the violence, which has plunged Egypt’s ruling army deeper into its toughest diplomatic crisis since taking over from former president Hosni Mubarak.

The Jewish state’s radio confirmed that the ambassador and his senior staff were now in Tel Aviv, but one Israeli official said that the consul will remain in Cairo to maintain the evacuated embassy.

The diplomat, identified as the consul for state affairs and Ambassador Yitzhak Levanon’s deputy, will remain in Egypt while Israel weighs a response to overnight demonstrations during which the Cairo office tower housing the mission was overrun, the official said.

The United States, which has poured billions of dollars of military aid into Egypt since it made peace with Israel in 1979, voiced concern about the violence after protesters hurled embassy documents and the Israeli flag from windows.

Police fired shots in the air and teargas to disperse the crowd. Protesters lit tires in the street and at least two vehicles were set alight near the embassy, located on the upper floors of a residential apartment block overlooking the Nile.

Demonstrators had used hammers, large iron bars and police barricades to tear down the wall outside the embassy building, erected this month by Egyptian authorities after protests over the killing of the five Egyptian border guards in Sinai.

Egypt commandos

Egyptian commandos rescued six Israelis to safety from their Cairo embassy as protesters stormed the building and threw diplomatic papers from a balcony, an Israeli official said on Saturday.

“Six people were actually trapped in the embassy and there was a real concern for their lives,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity. “In the end they were successfully rescued by Egyptian commandos.”

Israeli public radio said the six rescued men were security officers.

The official said that protesters were elsewhere on the embassy premises while the men were holed up.

“There was one wall between them,” he said, adding that Levanon, other staff and dependants had left Egypt earlier.

“When the violence got out of hand, some 80 (Israelis) were taken out” of Egypt, he said. “All our people are safe and sound.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a brief statement on Saturday morning that the six had also arrived back in Israel and were well.

In fear of public retaliation, the Israeli authorities tightened security around the Egyptian embassy in the Jewish state.

Three people were killed in clashes between police and protesters outside the Israeli embassy and a fourth died of a heart attack, Egyptian hospital sources said on Saturday.

It is estimated that around 448 people were injured, according to state television; protesters torched police trucks and attacked regional police headquarters.

Blow to peaceful relations

“This action shows the state of anger and frustration the young Egyptian revolutionaries feel against Israel especially after the recent Israeli attacks on the Egyptian borders that led to the killing of Egyptian soldiers,” Nabil Abdel Fattah, Egyptian political analyst said.

A senior Israeli official said the attack on his country’s embassy in Egypt is a “grave violation” of diplomatic norms and a “blow to peaceful relations” between the two countries.

One senior Israeli official said the attack on the embassy in Egypt is a ‘grave violation’ of diplomatic norms.

The official said all the embassy staff except the deputy ambassador left Egypt by Saturday morning.

Their departure followed a night of violence during which a mob broke into the Israeli Embassy in Cairo after tearing down a cement barrier around the building.

As dawn broke, about 500 demonstrators remained. Some hurled stones at police and army vehicles and personnel.

It was the second big eruption of violence at the embassy since five Egyptian border guards were killed last month during an Israeli operation against gunmen. That incident prompted Egypt briefly to threaten to withdraw its envoy.

Pulling Israeli diplomats even temporarily out of Egypt, the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state, could shake the confidence of the Jewish state already embroiled in a bitter feud with Turkey, formerly the closest of its few Muslim allies, over treatment of Palestinians.

“This action shows the state of anger and frustration the young Egyptian revolutionaries feel against Israel especially after the recent Israeli attacks on the Egyptian borders that led to the killing of Egyptian soldiers,” Nabil Abdel Fattah told Reuters.

Some politicians and activists criticized the violence, even if they backed the anti-Israel demonstration.

Presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahy called for the army to take a “serious stance matching the public anger” towards Israel but said violence sullied the image of Egypt’s uprising.

Last month, a man climbed up a flagpole on the building, took down Israel’s flag and replaced it with Egypt’s. Regular protests with such violence followed until the latest flare-up.

In response to daily protests, the authorities erected a wall around the building which was quickly defaced with anti-Israel slogans and then painted in Egypt’s national colors.

This action shows the state of anger and frustration the young Egyptian revolutionaries feel against Israel

Nabil Abdel Fattah, Egyptian political analyst

Dilemma

On Friday, the wall was torn down after a demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square calling for speedier reforms and a deeper purge of officials who worked for Mubarak, who is now on trial on charges including conspiring to kill protesters.

During Mubarak’s rule, Egyptians could never show such hostility to Israel without facing a crushing security response. Egypt’s ties with Israel were a pillar of his foreign policy and buttressed his claim as a regional mediator.

The treaty has sat uneasily with many Egyptians angered at what they see as Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians but it secures billions of dollars in US military aid and access to top-notch warplanes, tanks and other equipment.

The army now in charge faces the dilemma of pursuing a more assertive policy towards Israel and protecting the treaty.