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Britain handles Libyan embassy crisis with forced restraint

The siege of the Libyan People's Bureau in London turned into a low-key, drawn-out exercise as legal constraints and fear of retaliation against Britons in Libya stayed the hand of the British authorities.

At first, when a Libyan gunman on embassy premises sprayed St. James's Square with machine-gun fire, killing a policewoman, it was thought that British police and troops might move in quickly and occupy the diplomatic mission.

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But two linked problems arose: The embassy building and accredited Libyan diplomats are protected against normal police action by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Protocol, and the British government was concerned about possible retaliation by Col. Muammar Qaddafi against the 8,000 or more Britons living in Libya.

As a result, armed police began what was likely to prove a lengthy siege of the building. Meanwhile, tense negotiations began between Britain and Libya at three levels.

In London, senior police started talking to the embassy occupants by telephone. Foreign Office officials opened negotiations with two Libyan diplomats who were not in the people's bureau when the shooting incident occurred.

In Tripoli, Colonel Qaddafi's officials maintained contact with the British Embassy, which at one time during the week was besieged by armed Libyan police.

A bizarre aspect of the crisis arose from the peculiar status of Libya's diplomatic mission in London, styled by Colonel Qaddafi as a people's bureau.

In February a group of revolutionary students announced they had staged a coup within the embassy. They said the 22 accredited Libyan diplomats in London were no longer relevant.

But Britain continued to deal only with the accredited officials and to respect the inviolability of the embassy building.

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Under the Vienna convention, an embassy can be entered by a host country's police only at the invitation of the head of mission. Also, accredited embassy staff are immune to prosecution on criminal and civil charges.

Because it respects these conventions, the British government decided that it could not storm the embassy. As a result, if the killer of the policewoman turns out to have been an accredited diplomat, he may be able to walk away unscathed when the siege ends.

At the same time, concern about the situation of Britons living in Libya colored London's calculations.

British citizens are involved in major Libyan construction projects as well as oil exploitation. Given Qaddafi's unpredictable style, it seemed possible he would try to punish them if the British authorities in London made any false moves.

Britain and Libya maintain a lively two-way trade worth more than (STR)2 billion ($2.8 billion) a year in each direction.

Britain's commercial involvement with Libya is regarded as important in Whitehall, but as the siege continued, officials seethed at what was happening.

Some say that the shooting incident was the work of a revolutionary student inside the building and without accreditation. If so, the man would be open to prosecution by the police.

But, supposing the British authorities were able to enter the building, how would they identify the killer - especially if an accredited diplomat falsely claimed responsibility and asked to leave Britain?

Whatever happens, Whitehall sources are making it clear that one outcome will be major diplomatic sanctions by Britain against Libya, possibly including complete closure of the people's bureau.

At the very least, there will be numerous expulsions of official and unofficial Libyans from Britain once the siege ends.

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