Opposition group takes Iraqi Embassy

German police storm building, free hostages after a 5-hour siege

August 21, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BERLIN - A previously unknown Iraqi opposition group seized Iraq's new embassy in Berlin yesterday, holding several hostages, including the charge d' affaires, for about five hours before police stormed the building and ended the siege.

A spokeswoman for the police said the hostages were rescued without any serious injuries and that five members of the opposition group had been taken into custody.

"At 7:40 p.m. the building was entered, and five people were arrested," spokeswoman Christine Rother told reporters at the scene.

Earlier, the group said in a statement that "the liberation of Iraqi soil begins today," and it promised a "peaceful and temporary" action. The Iraqi Embassy, which opened July 17 after the staff moved from the old capital, Bonn, is legally Iraqi territory.

The building was quickly surrounded by about 200 German police officers, who said one person had been slightly injured in the takeover by the opposition group, apparently by Mace or pepper spray. The acting Iraqi ambassador, Shamil Mohammed, who is ranked as first secretary, was inside the building, police said.

A member of the opposition group, which calls itself the Democratic Iraqi Opposition of Germany, said the group was not armed, according to a report on Al Jazeera television.

Mustafa Isaid, a reporter with Deutsche Welle, the German broadcaster, spoke to one of the occupiers, who told him that they were having "a discussion with the staff and that everything is peaceful."

In a telephone interview, Isaid said that the man, who did not identify himself, said the group "wanted to free a piece of Iraq" and represented the people of Iraq.

German police rushed the building after receiving permission from the Baghdad government. In a statement, Iraq blamed the United States and Israel, and said the occupation of its embassy was a "terrorist aggression" by mercenaries of the Israeli and U.S. intelligence services.

"Armed terrorists from the mercenaries of the American and Zionist intelligence services attacked our embassy in Berlin, hurting an employee and holding the rest of the employees inside the building," the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The statement said the ministry was in contact with German authorities over "swift measures to evacuate the embassy from these mercenary terrorists and to protect the lives of the staff from this terrorist aggression."

The White House condemned the embassy takeover, and the chief spokesman, Ari Fleischer, told reporters that the United States had no advance knowledge of and no contacts with the dissidents.

"Actions like this takeover are unacceptable," Fleischer said in Texas, where President Bush is vacationing at his ranch. "They undermine legitimate efforts by Iraqis both inside and outside Iraq to bring regime change to Iraq."

The Iraqi National Congress, considered the "main" Iraqi opposition coalition, condemned the occupation of the embassy and said it confines its struggle against Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, to "Iraq proper."

The leaders of the congress, based in London, were invited to the White House last week for discussions on how to oust Hussein.

In a statement faxed from a Hamburg exchange to Reuters, the German group called its act "this first step against the terrorist regime of Saddam Hussein and his killers."

The seizure of the embassy, the statement said, "is intended to make the German people, its organizations and its political powers understand that our people have a desire to be free and will act on it."

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has opposed German participation in any war against Iraq, even with a mandate from the United Nations, and said that Germany would not contribute financially or militarily to such a war.

His comments, in the middle of a hard-fought election campaign, were considered too strong by Washington. The U.S. ambassador here, Daniel R. Coats, visited the chancellery last week to quietly express the United States' unhappiness with the tone of Schroeder's comments, which seemed to indicate that U.S. officials were not consulting allies.

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