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Chinese Attack U.S. Missions as Protests Intensify

Crisis in Yugoslavia

Asia: American envoy is trapped in Beijing embassy. Regime's support of rallies spurs concern that popular anger over NATO bombing may spiral out of control.

May 10, 1999|HENRY CHU and MAGGIE FARLEY and ANTHONY KUHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEIJING — Chinese protesters infuriated by the deadly NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia continued violent demonstrations into their third day today, attacking American diplomatic missions across the country and trapping the American ambassador inside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

"No question that we're hostages here," James R. Sasser told CBS-TV's "Face the Nation" by telephone on Sunday. "I think this demonstration is now exceeding government expectations, and there's always the danger that it's going to go out of control."

Thirteen people besides Sasser were stuck inside the compound.

"It is not safe," an embassy staff member said today by phone. "We're not going near any windows."

In a travel advisory issued late Sunday, the State Department said it "strongly urges" U.S. citizens to defer travel to China "until the situation stabilizes." U.S. diplomatic missions in the country have reduced their staffs and closed their doors until Wednesday. Americans in China should remain in or close to their homes or hotels and avoid crowds, the advisory warned, adding that "conditions remain volatile." It added that airports are open, and "Americans who wish to leave should be able to do so."

The NATO strike early Saturday on China's mission in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, killed three Chinese journalists and injured 20 other people in the diplomatic building, which would normally be considered a safe zone in war. A statement issued late Saturday by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and CIA Director George J. Tenet called the bombing "an error" caused by "faulty information."

The incident has left China's relations with the United States at the direst point since the two countries established ties 20 years ago.

Carefully built connections began to unravel today as China announced that it was canceling high-level military and human rights contacts with Washington. Areas affected included arms control, international security and the prevention of arms proliferation.

In a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy here, Sasser and his staff expressed their "profound sorrow" at the bombing and offered condolences to families of the victims. But China's state-controlled media failed to report either that statement or an expression of regret by President Clinton.

Instead, most Chinese newspapers carried bold headlines Sunday attacking NATO and the U.S. "NATO owes China a debt of blood," declared the Xinmin Daily in Shanghai.

The state's support of the protests could turn out to be a double-edged sword, however. Both Western and Chinese officials worry that the Chinese government is stoking a fury that may be growing greater than authorities' ability to channel it.

"The government wants the people to calm down," said a Chinese government official who asked not to be named. "But they are very angry and difficult to control."

Demonstrations Saturday that involved mostly students quickly expanded in dozens of cities Sunday to include blue- and white-collar workers and even families with children. City buses were pressed into service in the capital to ferry protesters to the leafy avenue lined with Western embassies where the U.S. mission is located, and official signs directed marchers on a recommended route.

From in front of the embassy, tens of thousands of people hurled bricks, paint and flaming tires at the embassy buildings, shattering nearly all the windows and defacing the brown facades with red and black spatters of paint.

"Blood for blood!" marchers shouted Sunday. "Down with the USA!" Molotov cocktails lobbed through embassy windows started two small fires inside the building, which were extinguished by Marine guards, embassy officials said.

An embassy spokesman said today that officials there felt that crowds were not being controlled by the police. "We are under siege," he said.

The British and Albanian embassies were also targeted.

About 7,000 police officers have been dispatched to protect the embassy compound, including about 1,000 around the U.S. Embassy, said the director of Beijing's bureau of public security, Qiang Wei.

In the western city of Chengdu, protesters had set the U.S. consul's residence ablaze late Saturday night, forcing the staff and families to be evacuated.

Chinese authorities, while encouraging "legal protests," may be growing wary of the effects of their own propaganda and the possibility that the high-running emotion could rebound against the government. The rallies are a surprising exception to the strict controls placed on public gatherings in the run-up to the 10th anniversary of the June 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests. In this politically sensitive time, when unemployment and economic uncertainty abound, allowing people to gather in protest has risks.

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