WASHINGTON -- Soviets made off with computer disks containing classified information when firefighters had free access for at least two hours to parts of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow during a fire March 28, the State Department said yesterday.
Spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said embassy Marine guards, wearing respirators, escorted Soviet firefighters inside the building but were forced to leave after 30 minutes because their respirators were depleted and heat and smoke threatened their lives.
Guards and security personnel re-entered the building two hours later, but even then, the heat and smoke were such that they couldn't reach some areas.
The building was secured about five hours after the fire began.
A number of computer disks were taken from open offices, some of them classified, Miss Tutwiler said. In addition, papers could have been taken, she said.
Ambassador Jack Matlock has registered a protest with the Soviets, she said.
Material taken was not considered "national security sensitive," she said. Other U.S. officials have said there was no loss of intelligence-related material that could have endangered anyone.
The spokeswoman said a preliminary probe showed that the embassy's "most sensitive areas" were locked at the time and not entered.
It wasn't clear yesterday whether KGB agents posed as firefighters or whether some firefighters were also serving the Soviet secret police.
But Miss Tutwiler added, "There were Soviet firemen who, at considerable risk to themselves, effectively fought this fire, and we greatly appreciate their efforts."