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Diplomats in Danger

Diplomats_in_DangerTower Hill, London: Monday, 30 September 1661. A large crowd gathers to watch the procession as the new Ambassador of Sweden arrives in London – and the expected battle between the Ambassadors of France and Spain over the vital diplomatic issue of the age, namely the order of precedence for their respective carriages. King James I has ordered the crowd not to take sides. The Ambassadors have promised not to use firearms.

The Spanish Ambassador’s carriage arrives early to get the best position. The French Ambassador’s carriage is guarded by 100 men on foot and 50 on horseback – many carrying pistols and small rifles. The King’s carriage containing the Swedish Ambassador trundles off, while terrific fighting starts along the streets of London. A group of Frenchmen along the route attack the Spanish Ambassador’s carriage, trying to cut the harness lines. They are foiled because the canny Spanish have used iron chains covered with leather.

This is a superb victory for Baron de Batteville, the Spanish Ambassador. But 12 people are killed (including a luckless English plasterer hit by a stray bullet), and 40 injured, among them the son of the French Ambassador. Samuel Pepys’ diary recorded how London rejoiced at the outcome: ‘indeed we do naturally all love the Spanish and hate the French’. All of which just goes to show how dangerous diplomacy can be.

Diplomacy and danger have always been intertwined. Back in 564 BC, Aesop was sent by King Croesus of Lydia to Delphi, only to be thrown off a cliff by the ungrateful citizens. Over 2,000 years later a group of angry Protestants built on this fine aerial precedent by throwing two Regents of the Holy Roman Emperor from a high window in Prague. The Regents landed on manure in a moat and made a miraculous, if malodorous, escape. This 1618 event (the Second Defenestration of Prague) started the Thirty Years War. The First Defenestration back in 1419 didn’t involve diplomats.

Diplomatic dangers come in many categories. Thankfully, successful attacks aimed at specific diplomats are rare. But they do happen. In 1918, the German Ambassador to Moscow, General Count von Mirbach, was blown up in his office by two assassins. British ambassadors Sir Richard Sykes and Christopher Ewart-Biggs were both murdered by the IRA, in 1979 and 1976 respectively. When I was serving in Belgrade, the Turkish Ambassador, Galip Balkar, was gunned down close to the British Embassy by two Armenian extremists in 1983.

Then there are the awful examples of diplomats dying as part of a terrorist attack aimed at a wider target, or even no obvious target. When I was serving at the British Embassy in Moscow in 1994, a small bomb exploded near my flat – but luckily no one was hurt.

In 2003, the UK’s Consul-General in Istanbul, Roger Short, as well as many other colleagues in the Consulate-General, died in a blast set off by extremist Islamist suicide bombers. This came soon after the appalling attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad, which claimed the lives of UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello and other colleagues working for peace.

More recently in 2008, Czech Ambassador Ivo Zdarek, and scores of other people, died in a terrorist attack on the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. And this year there have been two separate unsuccessful attacks on the British Ambassador and Deputy Head of Mission in Yemen.

One of the most infamous modern assassinations came in October 1981, when Egypt’s President Anwar el-Sadat died during a military parade in a hail of bullets fired by a group of soldiers espousing radical Islamist views. The Cuban Ambassador – among the VIP spectators – died too. The ensuing Despatch from the British Ambassador, who somehow escaped death, achieved immediate legendary status.

Sometimes senior diplomats die in circumstances which are never fully explained, like the death of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in 1961, when his plane crashed in northern Rhodesia. Before that tragedy came the disappearance and likely murder of distinguished Swedish envoy Raoul Wallenberg, taken into custody by Soviet forces in Budapest in 1945.

Working overseas takes diplomats into dangerous situations. One high-profile disaster came on treacherous mountain roads in Bosnia in 1995, when a vehicle carrying Robert Frasure (President Clinton’s special envoy to the former Yugoslavia), and two other senior Americans, plunged into a ravine after the road collapsed. Richard Holbrooke and General Wes Clark, in another vehicle, survived – and honoured their colleagues by concluding the Dayton Peace Accords not long afterwards.

Diplomats rarely get the chance to fight back against their attackers. But sometimes they do; and to brave effect. In Beijing in 1900, supporters of the Boxer Rebellion attacked the Legation Quarter near the Forbidden City. German envoy Klemens von Ketteler was killed trying to escape the city, but British ambassador Claude MacDonald helped organise the defences. The diplomats and a large group of marines kept the Boxers at bay. In an impressive example of international cooperation they used the famous ‘International Gun’: British barrel, Italian carriage, Russian shells and served by Americans.

I myself rarely, if ever, felt in real peril during my 28 years with the Foreign Office. But some of my colleagues have told me of these vivid moments, often involving aircraft:


‘My most personally searing experience involved an aircraft travelling back from a ministerial visit to India in 1984. Our BA Tristar blew a cabin pressure valve at 35,000 feet over the Rajasthan desert. We went from there to 9,000 feet in just over nine seconds. The cabin filled with condensation which, when mixed with the smell of burning omelette from the First Class breakfast, felt uncannily like smoke. For half a minute, I thought I’d had it!’

‘The worst incident was over Iceland when the landing gear jammed shut. We saw fire engines racing around as we circled overhead (thank God the problem solved itself).’

‘I flew into Sarajevo with the then Minister of State, Sir N Bonsor. The war was still sort of going on – at least in terms of Serb snipers. And though we didn’t realise this at the time, they actually fired on the plane. Anyway, because of this ‘attack’, we were not allowed to fly out of Sarajevo that night. All of this resulted in a much greater threat to my well-being than anything the Serb snipers could manage. We were taken to one of the few functioning restaurants in Sarajevo where we ate what appeared to be roadkill. Then we had to spend the night in this toxic flat. The Minister got the only bedroom. There was no electricity or running water, and, worst of all, [name] and I had to share adjoining sofas. The horror of it lives with me still.’

‘My first post was Buenos Aires in 1971. Diplomats and businessmen were regularly kidnapped and in the mornings the convoy of senior officers to the Embassy was escorted by guards with submachine guns. We needed locking petrol caps as it was popular to put explosives in tanks in ping pong balls, which would disintegrate in the fuel.’

Of course, not all dangerous incidents involve fatal outcomes. Diplomats can be valuable targets for kidnappers – or for aggressive regimes wanting to make a point. The British Ambassador to Uruguay, Sir Geoffrey Jackson, was kidnapped by Tupamaros guerrillas in 1971 and held for eight months, before being freed after the British government paid a modest ransom. Deputy Head of Mission, Edward Chaplin, was seized and beaten by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in 1987, seemingly in retaliation for the arrest in Manchester of an Iranian consular official charged with reckless driving, shoplifting and assault.

Most notorious of all was the prolonged detention (up to 444 days) by the Iranian regime of over 60 American officials after the US Embassy in Tehran was invaded by Iranian militants in 1979. They were released minutes after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981. The political reverberations from that episode are still with us.

Every year in November, the FCO holds a ceremony at the Main Staircase for colleagues who have died in active service. One of the names engraved on the wall is that of Charles Morpeth, a young British diplomat who died in a helicopter crash on a remote mountainside in Bosnia in on 17 September 1997: senior German, French and Polish colleagues from the Office of the High Representative were also lost.

I was then Ambassador to Sarajevo. Perhaps the hardest thing I had to do in my whole diplomatic career was to read out a tribute to Charles at a packed memorial service in Sarajevo cathedral, with his parents and wife Helen sitting in the congregation. My message then applies to all diplomats as they set out on peacekeeping missions: ‘Any of us could have been in that helicopter. Any of us could be in the next one.’



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