Iranian Embassy Siege
In 1980 the world watched as gunmen held 26 people hostage at the Iranian embassy in London.
After a six-day stand-off the SAS launched a dramatic attack on the hostage-takers.
The siege was ended when British special forces, the Special Air Service (SAS) stormed the building in an operation codenamed Operation Nimrod.
The incident brought the SAS to the world's attention, as the whole episode was played out in the world's media.
Lucky to be alive
At 11:30 on 30 April 1980 a six-man terrorist team calling itself the "Democratic Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of Arabistan" (DRMLA), sponsored by Saddam Hussein's Iraq, captured the building in Prince's Gate, Knightsbridge, central London.
Initially it emerged they wanted autonomy for an oil-rich region in southern Iran known as Khuzestan; later they demanded the release of 91 of their comrades held in Ayatollah Khomeini's jails. Only after the incident was over did it emerge that Iraq had trained and armed the gunmen to embarrass Iran, and it would become a prelude to the Iran-Iraq war.
Initially 26 hostages were taken, but five were released over the following few days. Police negotiators attempted to mollify the terrorists with supplies of food and cigarettes and on the third day a statement by the terrorists was broadcast on the BBC following threats to kill a hostage. The terrorist unit's Iraqi handler had promised the group that the Jordanian Ambassador would intervene to provide safe passage but when it became clear this was not going to happen the situation in the Embassy deteriorated.
On the sixth day of the siege the terrorists killed a hostage, the embassy's press attache Abbas Lavasani, and threw his body outside. This marked a crucial escalation of the situation and prompted Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's decision to go ahead with the operation. The order to deploy the Special Air Service (SAS) who had been trained for counter-terrorism was given in the first few hours of the siege. When the first hostage was shot, a note from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner was passed to the Ministry of Defence stating this was now a military operation.
The previously reclusive SAS thus found itself conducting a sharp, violent attack under the glare of the world's television cameras. As they moved into position the landing paths of planes into Heathrow were lowered to provide noise to cover their movements, and the gas board began noisy drilling in an adjoining street.
The assault started at 19:23 hours on May 5, 1980 (a Bank Holiday Monday) at the rear of the building with the detonation of a charge in a stair well, twenty-three minutes after the dead hostage had been thrown from the building. This was the signal for a section to abseil down from the roof and enter via the top floor windows. Simultaneously, electrical power was cut to the building.
At the same time another assault team used "frame charges" to remove the windows at the front of the building, setting fire to the room inside.
Meanwhile PC Trevor Lock, a policeman who had been on guard at the embassy, was on his own with "Salim", the leader of the gunmen. When an SAS man appeared at the window PC Lock 'rugby-tackled' the gunman, stopping him from shooting at the British commando. The SAS then burst into the room and shot Salim. PC Lock was later awarded the George Medal for his actions.
In the panic and confusion of the explosions, the gunmen on the second floor opened fire on the male hostages. One hostage, Ali Akbar Samadzadeh, was killed, and two others were injured. According to other hostages, the gunmen then decided to surrender and gave up their weapons – which were thrown out the window. The SAS entered into the room and demanded that the terrorists be identified. They immediately shot two of the gunmen.
The SAS bundled the hostages out of the burning building. In the process another gunman – reportedly carrying a grenade – was shot dead by the SAS. Outside the embassy the hostages were taken to waiting ambulances. A sixth gunman, Fowzi Nejad, was identified among them and he was led away by police. Operation Nimrod had taken less than 15 minutes.
Five of the six terrorists were dead and 19 hostages were safe.
The Iranian Embassy siege thrust journalist Kate Adie into the limelight. It was also a breakthrough for women journalists in general as until that time warzones and other hotspots were the preserve of male reporters. As that afternoon's duty reporter, Adie was first on the scene as the SAS stormed the embassy. The BBC interrupted coverage of the World Snooker Championships and Adie reported live and unscripted to one of the largest news audiences ever whilst crouched behind a car door.
There was some controversy over the killing of a few of the gunmen, especially Shai and Makki. They were guarding the Iranian hostages, and towards the end of the raid the hostages persuaded the gunmen to surrender. Hostages witnessed them throw down their weapons and sit on the floor with their hands on their heads (weapons being thrown out of a window and a white flag were seen by video cameras outside).
Dadgar, a hostage at the time (confirmed by two other hostages) said (of the SAS),
"They then took the two terrorists, pushed them against the wall and shot them. They wanted to finish their story. That was their job." He said that they might have "had something in their pockets but certainly had no weapons in their hands at the time."
It was reported a long time after the siege that the last surviving gunman was about to be led back into the building by one of the SAS men when he was found amongst the hostages, presumably to shoot him. However, the SAS man was prevented when it was pointed out that the world's media was watching.
However, at a coroner's inquest the SAS were cleared by a jury. One of the SAS soldiers said that he thought Makki was going for a gun, and another said he thought Shai had a grenade and shot him in the back of the neck.
Margaret Thatcher and her husband Denis paid a visit to the SAS at Regents Park barracks after the incident to thank them. "Tom", one of the SAS soldiers present, quotes Denis as saying they had partially failed: "He had a big grin on his face and said, 'You let one of the bastards live.' We failed in that respect." (Guardian interview in 2002)
Fowzi Nejad was convicted for his part in the siege, and received a life sentence. He became eligible for parole in 2005. With the date of his parole nearing, commentators noted that the UK government may be unable to deport him to Iran on his release (as he may face torture or execution there) and thus could be forced to grant him political asylum. Trevor Lock condemned this, but Dadgar told the BBC, "I personally forgive him, yes. I think he has been punished – fair enough." (BBC)
Lucky to be alive
Twenty years after the event, some people will never forget the Iranian embassy siege - the hostages.
"You think about it most days and reflect on how lucky you have been,"
says former hostage Chris Cramer.
Then a BBC journalist, Mr Cramer was visiting the embassy with sound recordist Sim Harris to pick up visas for a visit to Iran when they were captured.
He was released after 24 hours. At the time Mr Cramer was reported to be suffering from a severe stomach virus picked up in Africa. But this was not quite true.
"The four non-Arab persons, myself, Ron Morris, Sim Harris and Trevor Lock, decided that one of us had to get out.
"I was rather conveniently ill, so I ramped it up a little," he says.
The gunmen became alarmed and they agreed to release him. This enabled Mr Cramer to provide crucial information about the embassy layout, the number of gunmen and number of hostages.
This intelligence was used by the SAS when they stormed the building a few days later.
Mr Cramer, now managing editor of CNN International, says the siege affected him psychologically. He later realised he had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder - a condition unheard of at the time.
'Living through a feature film'
Former sound recordist Sim Harris was held for six days. He was seen on TV escaping over a balcony at the front of the embassy when the SAS made their assault.
"It was like living through a feature film, you just couldn't believe it was all happening," he says.
It was the execution of hostage Abbas Lavasani on Bank Holiday Monday that precipitated the SAS action. Mr Harris says that up until that final day he still thought the siege would end peacefully.
But after the shooting, each one of the hostages was scared they were going to be next.
"My fear was that having killed one hostage, why shouldn't they kill the next one? And then again, why shouldn't it be me?
Special Air Service