JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli guards drew their handguns, convinced it was their final moments as they hid in a barricaded safe room from Egyptian rioters just outside the door, ransacking rooms of the embassy.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials depicted a tense stretch of hours as they watched on security cameras and listened in on conference calls with six Israeli embassy guards caught in the facility as protesters rioted on the streets outside — and broke in.
In the end, Egyptian commandos made their way in and rescued the six after flurried phone calls between Israeli, American and Egyptian officials to try to resolve the unrest.
In a speech late Saturday, Netanyahu said one of the six, the embassy security chief named Yonatan, spoke by phone to an operations room in Jerusalem from their hiding place.
"The rioters had penetrated the building, penetrated the office, and only one door separated between the rioters and Yonatan and his friends," Netanyahu said. Yonatan told the officials in the operations room, "If something happens to me I ask you tell my parents face to face and not over the phone."
Netanyahu said he told him, "Yonatan, hang in there," promising Israel would do everything it could to get them home.
The 13 hours of rioting that lasted into the early hours Saturday was the worse incident between Egypt and Israel since the two neighbors signed a 1979 peace treaty. The Israeli ambassador, staffers and their families were forced to flee on military planes back to the Jewish state before dawn Saturday. Israel kept one diplomat in Cairo — albeit in hiding.
The protest began on Friday when hundreds of demonstrators massed outside the Israeli embassy, located on the top floors of a Cairo high-rise overlooking the Nile River. They tore down a concrete security wall that Egyptian authorities erected outside the building after previous protests last month. For several hours, the protesters pounded it with sledgehammers and tore off chunks.
After nightfall, some climbed into the building through a third-floor window and raced up the stairs to the embassy, said 28-year-old protester Mustafa Sayid, who said he was among those who broke in.
The group then took several hours to break through several security doors, he said. Then about 30 burst into an apartment that had been converted into reception offices for the embassy and began trashing its rooms, throwing documents in Hebrew out the balcony to the thousands in the crowd below. Sayid showed a reporter cell phone video footage he said he recorded inside of young men ransacking one of the rooms.
Israeli television stations, citing Israeli officials, said the protesters eventually gained access to two floors of the three-floor embassy, as Netanyahu and other officials in Jerusalem watched the events on surveillance cameras. On one of the floors, the six Israeli embassy guards huddled behind the steel door of a safe room, drawing their handguns when they heard the protesters outside fearing they would break in.
The protesters, who were unarmed, spotted one Israeli man in the area of the reception apartment, said the protester Sayid. They chased him and began beating him up, but by that time some Egyptian police had reached the area. The police pushed the protesters off the Israeli and took him away, Sayid said. The Israeli was apparently not one of the six. The Netanyahu aide said no Israelis were injured in the night's events, so it appeared the man was not seriously harmed.
Several hours later, Egyptian commandos reached the Israeli guards, the aide said.
An Egyptian security official said the commandos were sent after the Israeli ambassador, Yitzhak Levanon, spoke by phone with a member of Egypt's ruling military council and asked for help in evacuating the personnel. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
AP correspondent Aya Batrawy contributed to this report from Cairo.