Egypt has warned of harsh measures to quell civil unrest after protesters stormed Israel’s embassy, forcing the ambassador to flee and prompting Washington to say it was “deeply concerned”.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the mob attack late on Friday in Cairo a “serious incident”, but said his country was “committed to preserving peace with Egypt, which is in the interest of Egypt and Israel.”
The United States, an ally of both countries, said it was doing all it could to keep ties from deteriorating further.
The embassy attack – which saw staff rescued by commandos – was the worst since Israel established its mission in Egypt after Cairo became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state, back in 1979.
After a meeting with the ruling military council, Information Minister Osama Heikal said Egyptian authorities would take all necessary steps to preserve order, including the protection of embassies.
Calling the unrest an “attack on Egypt’s image”, Heikal added: “It is clear that the behaviour of certain people menaces the Egyptian state in its entirety.” And he warned: “Exceptional circumstances demand decisive judicial measures.”
Consequently, “security forces will have recourse to all necessary measures, including the right to legitimate self-defence, to preserve the security of the homeland.”
Cairo would apply “all articles” of an emergency law in force for 30 years that provided greater powers to the judiciary and police, he added.
And he affirmed Egypt’s “total commitment to respecting international conventions, including the protection of all (diplomatic) missions.”
In Jerusalem, the Israeli government said Ambassador Yitzhak Levanon would return to Egypt only after security could be guaranteed.
Levanon, other staff and their families left Egypt early Saturday, leaving the deputy ambassador to maintain contact with the Egyptian government, an official told AFP in Jerusalem.
Egyptian commandos had plucked six embassy staff to safety, he added.
“It was a painful blow to the peace between us and a grave violation of diplomatic norms,” the official said.
The attack was the worst episode since the killing of five Egyptian policemen last month on the border as Israel hunted militants after a deadly attack. Ties have generally been warming but that marked a serious downturn.
Three people were killed in clashes overnight Friday to Saturday between police and protesters outside the abandoned embassy, hospital sources said. The health ministry said one person had died of a heart attack.
More than 1000 people, including 300 policemen, were also injured in the unrest, which continued through the night as authorities struggled to get a grip on the anti-Israeli protests.
Police also arrested 19 people and handed them over to military prosecutors, a security official said.
In the storming of the embassy, demonstrators demolished a security wall around it with sledgehammers, removed the Israeli flag and entered the building, scattering thousands of diplomatic documents into the street below.
They also torched police trucks and attacked the nearby Giza police headquarters.
Hundreds of soldiers backed by armoured cars rushed to the area after US President Barack Obama called on Cairo to protect the embassy.
Interior Minister Mansur al-Eissawy declared a state of high alert, cancelling all police leave, while Prime Minister Essam Sharaf called an emergency cabinet meeting.
The attack came after 1000 protesters marched from Tahrir Square, where thousands had massed to press Egypt’s military rulers to keep promises of reform after a January-February revolt ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s office said he called US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta to request help to protect their embassy.
Obama spoke to Netanyahu by phone and expressed “great concern about the situation at the embassy, and the security of the Israelis serving there,” the White House said.
The Ynet news website quoted Netanyahu as saying “the mob attack on the Israeli embassy is a serious incident but could have been worse had the rioters managed to get through the last door and hurt our people.”
Israeli public radio said the six men rescued by the Egyptian commandos were security officers, and Netanyahu’s office said they had returned home safe.
“When the violence got out of hand, some 80 (Israelis) were taken out” of Egypt, an Israeli official said. “All our people are safe and sound.”
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said “we are relieved that no embassy personnel were injured.
“We have been in contact with the Egyptian and Israeli governments about this serious incident,” and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had highlighted US concerns to Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr, she added.
Western countries have condemned the embassy attack.
And Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said in a statement: “We trust that this regrettable incident is an isolated event and that the authorities will take the necessary measures to normalise the situation.”
Last month, Egypt demanded an apology from Israel following the August 18 killing of five policemen along the border, deaths that triggered the huge protests outside the embassy.
Activists have called for a revision of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel since Mubarak’s removal in February.