A building housing Israel’s embassy in Cairo, the Egyptian capital, has been stormed by hundreds of protesters who tore down one of the outer embassy walls.
Protesters demolished the wall, erected to protect the embassy which has become a focus for protests, with makeshift battering rams and hammers on Friday after peaceful demonstrations in Tahrir Square earlier in the day against the country’s military rulers.
Some protesters then scaled the wall of the building, replacing the Israeli flag with Egyptian and Palestinian flags. Others got inside and threw thousands of pieces of paper from upper-floor windows.
Essam Sharaf, the Egyptian prime minister, called a crisis cabinet meeting for Saturday morning, while the interior ministry declared a state of alert.
Yitzhak Levanon, Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, and senior embassy staff were evacuated and flown home to Israel, Israel Radio said.
Hundreds of Egyptian soldiers backed by armoured cars were rushed to the embassy district and clashed with the protesters, who torched police vehicles and attacked regional police headquarters nearby.
Protesters played cat-and-mouse with police throughout the night, amid clouds of tear gas and smoke from burning tyres.
Security forces gradually asserted control and the situation was calm by Saturday morning, although small crowds were still gathered in the area of the embassy, Al Jazeera’s Jamal Eshayyal said.
The Egyptian health ministry said there had been 1,049 injuries as a result of clashes around the embassy. State television said 46 police officers and security personnel had been injured, and three people are reported dead.
The group of about 1,000 people that swarmed the embassy had left a mass rally at nearby Tahrir Square, where organised protesters called for reforms by the military, which has ruled the country since Hosni Mubarak, the former president, was toppled in a popular revolution in February.
‘Attacking us from all sides’
Nora Shalaby, a protester outside Israel’s embassy, justified the protesters’ actions.
“I think this is the only way we can get our point across. Here we still have lots of tear gas. There’s rubber bullets. They’re basically attacking us from all sides,” she said, referring to government security forces.
Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros said security forces fired live ammunition into the air as protesters attempted to stom the security headquarters, another focal point for demonstrations.
“As far as we understand these protesters are unarmed, they’ve been there for hours,” our correspondent said.
State television quoted an interior ministry official as saying that “foreign hands” were behind the violence. Egypt’s rulers often blame foreigners for unrest in the country.
Israel’s ambassador, Yitzhak Levanon, his family and other embassy staff rushed to Cairo airport and left on a plane for Israel, Egyptian state television and airport officials said.
The state television also reported that Levanon met with a general of the ruling military’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces before his departure, and that the ambassador appeared “anxious and even scared”.
Levanon had only recently returned to Cairo from a holiday in Israel as protests raged outside the embassy since last month.
Obama voices US concern
US President Barack Obama was first to react, calling on Egypt to protect the embassy and “to honour its international obligations to safeguard the security of the Israeli Embassy.”
A White House statement said that “the President expressed his great concern about the situation at the embassy, and the security of the Israelis serving there”.
The statement said that Obama spoke by telephone to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and the two agreed “to stay in close touch until the situation is resolved”.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, also called Mohamed Kamel Amr, Egypt’s foreign minister, to urge Egypt to meet its Vienna Convention obligations to protect diplomatic property, a senior state department official said.
Last month, Egyptians staged huge protests outside the embassy and called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador over the border deaths of Egyptian policemen killed as Israel hunted a group of attackers.
Egypt has asked Israel for an official apology and demanded a probe into the deaths of the five policemen.