LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's ambassador to Iran described Friday how he took refuge while a mob rampaged through his embassy in Tehran, smashing windows, tearing up portraits and starting fires, while seven staff were seized by protesters at a second compound.
Speaking three days after the attack by protesters on the British embassy in Iran that sparked a crisis in British-Iranian relations, Dominick Chilcott said he had feared he might be taken hostage as U.S. diplomats were in 1979.
Britain responded by shutting its embassy in Tehran and ordering the closure of Iran's embassy in London, expelling all Iranian diplomats who left the country Friday.
Chilcott told how protesters rampaged through the embassy building, removing a picture of Britain's Queen Elizabeth, mutilating portraits of previous British monarchs, damaging furniture, writing graffiti on walls and smashing up rooms in what he called "spiteful, mindless vandalism."
Protesters also took mobile phones and computers "anything that might give information about who you were talking to or what you were doing," he told Sky News.
Chilcott said Tuesday's protest was different to previous demonstrations at the embassy because the police stood back, adding that it was clear the demonstration had state support.
"It was quite frightening. In our compound we were locked in to the chancery building. We were up on the top floor in our safe area and the mob failed to get into the building," Chilcott, now back in Britain, told the BBC.
"We'd heard them trying to smash the doors and the windows down below but they couldn't get into our part of the building, except in one point where they got into one of the consular offices and started a fire. In the end it was the fire and the smoke ... which forced us out," he said.
By the time he and his staff came downstairs, the protesters had lost interest and moved to other buildings, he said.
Asked if it had occurred to him that he might suffer the same fate as 52 Americans held hostage for 444 days by hardline students at the U.S. Embassy in Iran from 1979, Chilcott said: "It would be untrue to say that those thoughts don't go through your mind, of course, and you hope that that is not going to happen."
"We were in a completely new situation and how it was going to end was not predictable and the behaviour of the police was so strange that we weren't sure whose side they were on, if you like, and that didn't really give us much comfort," he said.
Chilcott said seven of his staff, among employees and relatives who had been sent to the embassy's residential complex in the north of Tehran for their safety, were seized by protesters.
Embassy staff at the second compound went to safe areas, known as "keeps," and locked themselves in.
"One of our staff was on his own in his keep and he barricaded the door with a heavy safe and a bed, and braced himself against the wall. And for 45 minutes he could hear people bashing down the door, smashing the windows and trying to get in," Chilcott told Sky News.
"It must have been a very frightening experience - until eventually the door gave way and they got him," he said.
"Then our staff, in the end there were seven altogether, were taken to one of the properties and they were made to sit silently, they were not allowed to talk in the room by the invaders, without really knowing what was going on."
"It must have been a troubling experience. They were quite roughly handled, one or two of them, as well."
(Additional reporting by Stefano Ambrogi; Editing by Jon Hemming)