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150 Forced to Flee Blaze at U.S. Embassy in Moscow

February 17, 1988|Associated Press

MOSCOW — Fire broke out today in an unoccupied fifth-floor room of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, forcing about 150 people to flee the building to a snowstorm outside.

Flames leaped from windows on the fifth floor of the aging, 10-story building, and smoke continued to pour out for an hour after it was evacuated.

Soviet firefighters were summoned to the scene in mid-afternoon and were escorted by U.S. Marine guards into the embassy compound. The blaze apparently began in an unoccupied room in an area undergoing renovation.

Philip Brown, a senior embassy spokesman, said the cause of the fire had not been determined. There were no injuries.

Was to Have Been Replaced

The building, leased to the United States by the Soviet government since the 1950s, was to have been replaced by a new diplomatic complex. But the new embassy building at the center of that complex remains vacant and unfinished following discovery that it is riddled with Soviet eavesdropping devices.

About 150 embassy employees were in the building when the fire broke out. Ambassador Jack Matlock was not at the embassy at the time but returned after the evacuation, press attache Richard Gilbert said.

Gilbert said the fire "might be construction related, but it has not been determined." The spokesman said there was no serious damage to the main working areas of the embassy, which are located on the sixth floor and above.

In Washington, a senior official said the fire was contained to an unclassified area and was unrelated to talks that Secretary of State George P. Shultz will open Sunday with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze.

In Poor Repair

"The fire was a fire," Assistant Secretary of State Rozanne L. Ridgway said. "It would be totally wrong, it would be fiction, to try to have it have anything to do with the upcoming visit."

Much of the building, which is in poor repair, is under renovation while officials in Washington ponder what to do with their new embassy building less than a block away.

U.S. Reps. Daniel A. Mica (D-Fla.) and Olympia J. Snowe (R-Me.), during an inspection of the embassy last April, pronounced it "a firetrap and unsafe by accepted standards for general working conditions."

A more serious fire ravaged the top floors of the embassy building in August, 1977. Officials said the damage then was particularly severe because Ambassador Malcolm Toon refused to permit Soviet firefighters to enter the top-security embassy communications center and some of its most sensitive work areas to combat the blaze.

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