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Posted: 5/23/2002 7:23:11 AM EDT
Probable cause of fire: anti-semitic shortcircuit.
France surrenders.


Edited to fix picture and add...

Israeli security experts are to assist forensic experts sifting through the debris of the country's burnt out Paris embassy, but early indications show an electrical fault is to blame.

The blaze engulfed four of the five floors of the Israeli embassy in Paris early on Thursday, destroying much of the structure and interior.

Eight firemen were slightly hurt during the five-hour struggle to get the intense fire under control, two when the floor collapsed sending them onto the storey below.

No other injuries were reported as the building was empty at the time and dozens of people from nearby buildings were evacuated.

"It was like a pottery oven in there," Fire Capt. Laurent Vibert told The Associated Press later.

Early concern centred around fears that it may have been the latest in a series of arson attacks on Jewish buildings and symbols that have hit France recently.

But both the Israeli ambassador Elie Barnavi and police said they believed the cause was an electrical fault.

The building in the fashionable and exclusive area near the Champs-Elysees boulevard and the French presidential palace has been under renovation, mainly on the ground floor.

Forensic experts were investigating the fire's cause along with prosecutors and judicial police, while diplomats from Israel's Foreign Ministry were heading to Paris to help.

Barnavi said the building was under tight security and that he doubted foul play, adding that the "most plausible" answer was that it was an accidental electrical short circuit.

Vibert, the fire captain, said the fire may have been electrical in origin and that

no explosion was heard before the blaze broke out.

"No indication leads us to believe it was an attack," Vibert told AP.

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

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

The Israeli Embassy in Paris: Four of five floors are now in ruins    

"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.

The elegant building, with a wood-panelled interior, had served as the headquarters of Israel's diplomatic mission to France for four decades.

The fire was so intense that only the walls were left standing.

"We literally saw the fire jump from one floor to another, up towards the top. it was like a scene in a movie," Barnavi told Reuters news agency. "All our memories went up in smoke."

France has seen a spate of anti-Semitic attacks in recent months linked to violence in the Middle East, leading Barnavi to initially include arson as a possibility.

But he praised the speed with which firefighters and police had rushed to the burning embassy and said he had been touched by offers of help from French officials.
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