Three die, 1,000 hurt as Israeli diplomats flee Cairo
Only one door stood between embassy staff and protesting hordes
THEY came armed with sledgehammers, battering rams and a determination to drive the representatives of the Israeli state out of the Egyptian capital.
By dawn, three people were dead and more than 1,000 injured; 86 Israelis -- diplomats and their families -- had been airlifted to safety; and the two countries were staring into a diplomatic abyss.
The overnight clashes outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo followed a mass protest in Tahrir Square, the centre of February's revolution, after Friday prayers. A crowd broke away to march to the Israeli embassy, the scene of confrontations three weeks ago after five Egyptian security officers were killed by Israeli forces in the aftermath of a militant attack on the Egypt-Israel border which left eight Israelis dead.
The Israelis recently erected a barrier around their building after a protester scaled the walls to tear down the Jewish state's flag. The concrete and metal wall -- now defaced with anti-Israel graffiti -- was the initial target of the crowd. Using hammers, battering rams and their bare hands, they tore down a section of the barrier and advanced on the building. For a second time, the Israeli flag was ripped from its pole, and Palestinian and Egyptian flags raised instead.
Egyptian riot police and troops belatedly struggled to regain control of the area, firing live ammunition in the air and teargas at the crowds.
About 20 tanks moved into the streets around the embassy as protesters threw rocks and set tyres and vehicles on fire. But a small group broke into the embassy's lower floors -- triggering high-level alarm in Israel.
Mustafa Sayid, 28, said he spent several hours trying to break through three doors to enter the embassy.
In Jerusalem, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened an emergency session with senior government colleagues to discuss the crisis. "It was a very dramatic and tense night," said an Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The prime minster spent much of the night in a foreign ministry operations room dealing with people trapped inside the embassy."
At 9.30pm Mr Netanyahu decided to evacuate diplomatic staff and their families. A special military plane was dispatched and 80 Israelis were airlifted at 4.40am.
But six, believed to be embassy security staff, remained trapped inside the besieged building. "There was one door separating them from the mob," according to the official. "There was a real fear for their safety and their very lives."
Mr Netanyahu and others in the operations room spoke to the trapped Israelis on a special line, reassuring them of efforts to secure their release.
Eventually, Egyptian commandos reached the group, in an operation broadcast live to the foreign ministry in Jerusalem. They were evacuated to Israel on a second plane at around 6.45am.
Mr Netanyahu also spoke to US President Barack Obama who expressed "great concern" about the situation and said the US was acting "at all levels" to resolve it. He called on Egypt to "honour its international obligations".
"We're very grateful to the Americans," said the Israeli official. "We believe they acted behind the scenes to get our people out alive."
The Israelis were also grateful that the Egyptian authorities "ultimately acted with determination", he added, hinting that they had initially allowed the situation to spin out of control.
Most of the demonstrators dispersed after dawn.