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Security concerns lead U.S. to close most embassies in Africa

embassy December 17, 1998
Web posted at: 11:58 p.m. EDT (0358 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. State Department Thursday temporarily closed most of its embassies in sub-Saharan Africa and also in Amman, Jordan.

State Department spokesman James Rubin said that in view of a "number of recent threats to security" and the heightened threat after military action in Iraq, most but not all U.S. government facilities in sub-Saharan Africa were ordered closed for two days (Thursday and Friday)

Rubin said the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan, was closed Thursday only.

The only sub-Saharan embassies that remained open were in South Africa, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, Rubin said.

The State Department's Bureau of African Affairs sent a cable to the posts on Wednesday ordering the temporary suspension of official business, an official told Reuters.

Officials would not disclose the exact nature of the threats that prompted the closings.

But some said the bureau is especially sensitive to the potential for threats since the August bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 250 people and injured thousands more.

"I can't comment on specifically why we did this. But the decision was carefully considered, and the security situation at each embassy was taken into account in making the decision," one official said.

Asked if the sweeping scope of the closures was unprecedented, he replied, "It's not a question of precedence, but a question of prudence."

Another official acknowledged, "This is not the usual way of doing things."

He and others expressed surprise at the action. Some officials said the State Department's bureau of diplomatic security, which has responsibility for U.S. embassy security, was not fully consulted on the closings and did not endorse the scope.

The United States and Britain launched missiles against Iraq overnight Wednesday after a U.N. report accused Baghdad of failing once again to comply with international weapons inspections.

As a protective measure, the United States on Wednesday ordered all U.S. Embassy personnel dependents under age 18, over 65, or pregnant to leave diplomatic missions in Israel and Kuwait.

On November 11, during the last crisis with Iraq, the State Department authorized the departure of dependents and non- emergency personnel from these same posts, meaning it would permit and pay for them to leave the area.

This time the directive requires those listed to leave.

In its announcement, the State Department noted that in previous times of tension there were concerns about Iraq possibly using chemical and biological weapons against countries in the region.

In the current crisis, the risk of Iraq using such weapons is "remote ... delivery would be difficult, and ... Saddam Hussein's capabilities are limited," it said.

"However, we are concerned that some members of our community (in Israel and Kuwait) cannot be fully protected against the potential use of such weapons," it said.

In its worldwide caution, the department said it had no specific information about threats to U.S. citizens, but "the potential for retaliatory acts against U.S. citizens exists."

The State Department issued a worldwide warning to Americans abroad to be aware of possible retaliatory action and to take precautions.

Americans abroad were urged to "maintain a high level of vigilance and to take appropriate measures to protect their personal security," the warning said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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