TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iranians who stormed the British embassy in Tehran this week left a trail of destruction that witnesses said looked to have been well organized and not the result of a spontaneous eruption of anger, as portrayed by state authorities.
Western diplomats who visited the embassy in central Tehran on Wednesday, a day after it was sacked, told Reuters of "devastating" damage to buildings smashed up and burned and of the ordeal of diplomatic staff who have since left the country.
The elegant 135-year-old residence in a wooded compound in downtown Tehran, used by the ambassador to host official dinners under chandeliers and with paintings of former British monarchs looking on, was said to have been "systematically destroyed."
A second compound, a sprawling walled park in the northern Tehran neighborhood of Qolhak where most diplomats lived in modern bungalows, was raided at the same time, adding to suspicions that the actions were orchestrated.
The Islamic Republic's authorities played down the incident, calling it an impromptu action by normal youths whose anger at the latest British sanctions on Iran spilled over during what should have been a peaceful demonstration outside the embassy.
The Foreign Ministry expressed regret for the "unacceptable behavior of a few demonstrators."
But Foreign Secretary William Hague said Iran's rulers must at least have given some consent to the violence.
London withdrew all diplomatic staff and closed the embassy until further notice after scores of young men forced their way into two compounds and went on what diplomats said was a destructive rampage.
"It was devastating to see," one EU diplomat told Reuters.
"I saw two rooms where you couldn't see what they were. There was just ashes."
"You could tell the action was coordinated," he added, saying a building that had not been used for years was untouched, while the most important offices were razed.
Diplomats were unhurt but emotionally shaken as they saw their compounds overrun by zealous young men who paused their rampage at one point for afternoon prayers.
They feared a similar fate to the American embassy staff who were held for 444 days after their embassy in Tehran was seized in 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution.
British staff spent the following night at a nearby EU embassy and were issued temporary travel documents to enable them to leave the country as most had lost their passports during the storming, a diplomat said.
But after a matter of hours, protesters in both compounds left, leaving their colleagues in other Western embassies to speculate that the action was being coordinated and directed by someone in charge.
Diplomats from eleven countries, including Russia, New Zealand and Mexico as well as European states, toured both sites on Thursday, the ISNA news agency reported.
Media were denied access to see what lay behind the high, razor-wire topped walls that were supposed to protect the embassy buildings and their staff.
After demanding Iran close its London embassy, Hague lobbied his EU counterparts meeting in Brussels on Thursday for tougher sanctions on Iran.
Iranian state-run television made no mention of the escalating diplomatic tensions, with lunchtime news bulletins leading with public sector strike action in Britain, showing TV pictures of strikers being pushed around by police.
The events promised to upset travel plans for thousands of Iranian tourists, students and business people who had pending visa applications to visit Britain.
The embassy's website advised British nationals in Iran to seek consular help, if needed, from other EU countries, but it gave no advice to Iranians who had already submitted vital documents, many of whom posted urgent pleas on the embassy's Facebook site -- www.facebook.com/UKinIran.
"My mother's passport, housing deeds and bankbook documents were at the embassy ... Now we are in a limbo and don't know what to do," one wrote. "The main problem now is not the visa, but how to get our documents back. Please advise."
(Additional reporting by Hashem Kalantari and Zahra Hosseinian; Editing by Mark Heinrich)