BERLIN – Iraqi dissidents opposed to Saddam Hussein took control of Iraq's embassy in Berlin and held senior diplomats hostage for five hours until German commandos stormed the building and ended the siege without firing a shot. Five members of the group were arrested.
Two diplomats who had been tied up and held hostage inside the embassy were freed without injury. Police moved in Tuesday after the Iraqi government gave permission.
The previously unknown Democratic Iraqi Opposition of Germany claimed responsibility for the siege, calling it ``the first step'' toward the liberation of their homeland. The five men detained appeared to be in their 30s. Police said they had no information on their identities.
The men, armed with a loaded pistol, two tear gas guns, a hatchet and a stun gun, forced their way into the three-story embassy at 2:25 p.m. Tuesday.
They took four hostages, including the acting ambassador and his successor, and barricaded themselves inside, said Martin Textor, the head of the German commando operation.
Police did not identify the hostages. An official list of diplomats identifies Iraq's acting ambassador as Shamil Mohammed.
Two embassy employees were released almost immediately — a woman whose eyes were irritated by the hostage-takers' tear gas, and a man who went into shock.
Alerted by neighbors who said they heard two gun shots, police responded with nearly 300 officers, swarming the elegant Zehlendorf neighborhood, that is home to numerous diplomatic missions. The Iraqi diplomatic mission opened on July 17 after moving from Bonn, the former West German capital.
The commandos moved in at dusk after 20 attempts to contact the hostage-takers by telephone failed, Textor said. The Iraqi government gave permission for the police action; embassies are considered sovereign territory, and under diplomatic rules police are forbidden from entering without a government's permission.
Clambering over an iron fence, the commandos stormed the building and knocked a loaded Czech-made pistol out of the hands of one of the hostage-takers, freeing the two diplomats.
``The suspects had no chance to put up resistance,'' Berlin's interior minister, Ehrhart Koerting, told a news conference.
Neighbors said German police patrol the street once or twice a day, but they saw no signs of guards posted outside the Iraqi mission, just across the street from the Portuguese ambassador's residence.
About a dozen embassy employees who arrived after the standoff ended paraded around outside the building with two framed pictures of Saddam Hussein and an Iraqi flag. One man said the hostage-takers had taken down the flag and the pictures when they went inside.
``These people were just playing. They took down the flag and the pictures and went a bit crazy,'' said the man, who identified himself as a friend of the acting ambassador.
A statement by the group, written in nearly perfect German, called for Saddam's ouster.
``We are taking over the Iraqi Embassy in Berlin and thereby take the first step toward the liberation of our beloved fatherland. Our action is peaceful and limited in time. Our path is the liberation of Baghdad.''
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the administration had no knowledge of — or contacts with — the dissident group. He said the siege does not help in the goal to eventually overthrowing Saddam.
``We have an unequivocal position that this action is unacceptable, even against a regime that is as evil as Iraq's,'' Fleischer said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in Washington that the hostage-taking wasn't part of a U.S. strategy against Iraq.
Germany has expressed opposition to U.S.-led military action to remove Saddam, who is accused of trying to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Textor, the leader of the German commando team, said that beyond the statement from the group calling for the liberation of Baghdad, the hostage-takers made no demands. Police were still investigating their motives and trying to ascertain the identities of those arrested, he said.
``Where they came from and what their motive was, I really can't say at the moment,'' Textor said.
A spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress in London said the group appeared to have been founded several months ago. He was not familiar with its members.
The spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Iraqi opposition ``has never resorted to any violent action outside the country against the regime.''
Iraq cast blame on the United States and Israel. An Iraqi Foreign Ministry official in Baghdad said ``armed terrorists of the American and Zionist intelligence mercenaries attacked our embassy building.''
The ministry established ``contacts with German authorities to adopt speedy measures to evacuate the embassy building,'' the official added.