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Friday, 13 October, 2000, 17:35 GMT 18:35 UK
Guarding our embassies
Protesters gather outside the US embassy in Yemen
Foreign embassies can become a focus for protest
The bombing of the British embassy in Yemen has shown such buildings remain a tempting target for terrorists. Can our overseas missions ever be made invulnerable to attack?

To British travellers, the UK consulates and embassies in more than 180 foreign countries are a welcome source of comfort and advice in times of trouble.

But for terrorists, as well as legitimate protesters, these far-flung parcels of British soil are often viewed as a powerfully symbolic target for their anger.

Chilean protesters outside the British embassy
Embassies must prepare for peaceful protest and terrorist attack
The bomb that was tossed over the wall of the UK's diplomatic mission in Sana'a, the Yemen capital, at 0610 local time (0310 GMT) on Friday, shows these buildings can also be "soft" targets.

The attack, which ignited a diesel generator inside the embassy perimeter, has heightened fears the current tensions in Israel could prompt a spate of such terrorist actions.

So what can be done to protect diplomatic staff and premises?

The Vienna Convention, which governs the operation of diplomatic missions, states that host nations have a "special duty" to guard embassies from intrusion and damage.

Difficult choices

How governments should prevent attacks on their embassies remains a much debated question.

Jerry Hart, a lecturer in security management at the University of Leicester's Scarman Centre, says a balance needs to be struck between protecting staff and allowing them go about their work.

Turning every mission into a "fortress" is both expensive and likely to "have a detrimental effect on functionality", he says.

Mr Hart also asks whether British ambassadors would relish having their visitors negotiate tangles of razor wire to enter a mission.

The US consulate in Shanghai under guard
Host nations must protect foreign embassies
Such an approach might seem incongruous for embassies established in friendly, stable countries.

Mr Hart says it would be difficult to maintain the high state of vigilance required to foil terrorist attacks in a location where little threat seems to exist.

"There is a natural point of resistance, where staff will no longer remain alert to a threat they see as artificial."

Following a number of devastating bombings on United States embassies, including 1998's attacks in Kenya and Tanzania which killed 224 people, calls have come to impose just such tight security across the board.

Larry C Johnson, a former State Department counterterrorism advisor, says his country was "slow to learn" that dissuading terrorists from one target merely pushed them to concentrate on another.

Looking for weakness

"No terrorist group looks around for a well-defended target. They want one offering the easiest access, where they have the least chance of being killed or captured."

By relaxing security missions well away from the world's hotspots "you automatically make them the most likely target", says Mr Johnson.

Aftermath of the bombing of the US Embassy in Kenya
The Kenya bombing prompted calls for "fortress" embassies
For this reason, he dismisses suggestions rigorous precautions should not be imposed so as not to needless hinder the diplomats' daily lives.

"I'd rather have people inconvenienced than killed."

Following the truck bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which claimed more than 220 lives, the balance seems to have tipped in favour of this argument.

The US Government has ordered a number of missions across Africa to close because of the Israeli crisis.

Despite efforts to "harden" their defences, the US Government is keen to replace a number of its existing missions.

An embassy in Tajikistan has been abandoned as "indefensible", according to the Washington Post. Diplomatic staff in Hanoi vacated exposed offices, working instead from rooms at the centre of the mission.

"Hardened" target

"We're still extremely vulnerable in some countries," says Mr Johnson.

The US State Department is set to go on a $11.4bn spending spree to upgrade its overseas facilities.

However, finding suitable plots of land - set at least 100 feet back from public roads to foil would-be bombers - is proving difficult.

The US Embassy in Belgium
Raise the flag, and the barricades
The UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has also been criticised by MPs for being "complacent" about security arrangements in low-risk countries.

Following the assassination of Brigadier Stephen Saunders, the British military attaché to Greece, a Commons committee investigated the incident.

"We found it incredible ... there was not greater priority given to the protection of our diplomatic personnel," said MP Donald Anderson.

At the time of Brig Saunder's murder, the Americans were said to have turned their own embassy into a "fortress" due to lingering tensions over the Kosovo conflict.

Mr Hart says embassies which can be put on high alert - with tight security checks and physical barriers brought to bear - depending on the perceived risks are the best solution.

"World events can change very quickly, embassy designs and operating procedures have to be robust enough to withstand that change.

"Some of these measures aren't difficult. For instance, don't put a diesel generator within striking distance of a bomb thrower."

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13 Oct 00 | Middle East
Explosion hits UK Yemen embassy
13 Oct 00 | Middle East
Yemen blasts spark terror fears
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