Last updated at: (Beijing Time) Thursday, May 23, 2002

Fire Destroys Israeli Embassy in Paris

A fire erupted at the Israeli Embassy in Paris early Thursday morning, destroying the building, French officials said. There was no immediate indication the blaze was caused by arson or an attack.


A fire erupted at the Israeli Embassy in Paris early Thursday morning, destroying the building, French officials said. There was no immediate indication the blaze was caused by arson or an attack.

The fire broke out at 2:20 am local time (0020 GMT) in the five-story embassy, which was unoccupied at the time, police and firefighters said. Eight firefighters were slightly injured battling the blaze, which was virtually extinguished by 6:00 am (0400 GMT).

Prosecutors, judicial police and forensic experts were at the scene gathering evidence, according to Paris Police Chief Jean-Paul Proust.

The cause of the fire was not immediately known, but he said four of the building's five floors were in ruins, charred beyond repair. Before the fire was brought under control, flames could be seen shooting through second-floor windows as they advanced unhindered from floor to floor.

"The embassy was completely destroyed," Proust said. Files, furniture, books, computers and other equipment also were lost.

The embassy was recently undergoing renovation but was in use as of Wednesday. The repair work was mostly limited to the ground floor.

About 150 firefighters and dozens of fire vehicles were at the scene, as was Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe and Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.

"Everything that concerns Israel is serious in the period we are now in. We're aware of that and we stand together," Raffarin told LCI television.

Israeli Ambassador Elie Barnavi said security guards immediately alerted authorities, and firefighters were on the scene within minutes. But the flames spread so rapidly that the building - an old structure with interior woodwork and wood floors - could not be saved, he said.

"It's tragic, tens of years of work disappearing under our eyes," Barnavi said. "But it is a consolation that there were no casualties."

Diplomats from Israel's Foreign Ministry were headed to Paris on Thursday, but that the investigation would be handled by French police, Barnavi added.

Access to the scene was completely blocked by police vehicles, and acrid smoke could be smelled in the surrounding area. The embassy is in an exclusive neighborhood, just blocks away from the fashionable Champs-Elysees and elegant French presidential palace.

French President Jacques Chirac telephoned Barnavi and assured the Israeli diplomat that everything would be done to determine the cause of the fire.

Fire Capt. Laurent Vibert said smoke billowed out the building shortly after the blaze erupted, a possible indication the fire was electrical in origin. He added that no explosion was heard before the blaze broke out.

"No indication leads us to believe it was an attack," he said.

Synagogues and other Jewish institutions have been targeted by attacks in France for over a year, violence that has coincided with an escalation in the Middle East conflict. In the most serious case, a synagogue in the southern city of Marseille was burned to the ground on March 31.

Dozens of evacuated residents who live in apartment buildings adjoining the embassy began returning home after dawn. The neighboring structures were not damaged, partly because of the thickness of stone walls that separate them from the embassy.

Delanoe, the city's mayor, called on France to stand by Israel.

"It is traumatic when the embassy of a friendly country burns," he said.

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