The SAS storms the Iranian embassy in London
The siege of the Iranian embassy that had begun six days earlier came to a violent conclusion on May 5 1980.
Over the first five days of the siege five hostages were released, mainly women, but also Chris Cramer the BBC journalist who had been at the embassy in Prince’s Gate to pick up a visa. He had some stomach pains, but had agreed with PC Trevor Lock who had been surprised by the gunmen when guarding the embassy that he should act as if they were worse to get him freed, and thus able to fill the security forces in on the terrorists and their preparations.
The British government was unwilling to allow Arab diplomats to become involved, perhaps fearing a loss of control, and that it might prove difficult to avoid a situation where a deal was done to extricate the gunmen, thereby making the UK both a laughing stock and a magnet for further acts of international terror.
COBRA had approved the continuing discussions with a Jordanian diplomat, but this was stalling for time. It had already been decided not to give in to demands for a plane to fly the gunmen and their hostages out of Britain.
On Bank Holiday Monday, May 5 1980, events at the embassy took a turn for the worse. Trevor Lock yelled to the police outside that a hostage would be shot unless something happened fast as regards providing an Arab diplomat as go-between. This was 11.00. The 30 minute deadline given passed.
Embassy press attaché Abbas Lavasani, who as a fervent supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini had previously argued vociferously with his captors several times, was tied up and taken away from the other captives. At noon three shots were fired. Lavasani had been murdered, but this was not sure until his body was dumped outside at 7pm.
This deterioration in the situation led the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to hand over control to the MOD. Just 23 minutes after Lavasani’s body was thrown outside the building operation Nimrod began.
Some 30 SAS soldiers stormed the building in a carefully planned operation that nearly went wrong – as one soldier was abseiling into place his boot broke a window pane, and Salim, the terrorist leader, went to investigate. The operation commander acted decisively, giving the order to go in spite of some of his force being out of position still.
A huge explosion shook the embassy as a charge was dropped through a skylight to scare and disorient the gunmen. The power was cut to get rid of the lights in the building. Soldiers entered from the front, the rear, window and roof. To avoid crossfire the hunt and kill element was largely left to a four-man team.
Terrorists opened fire on hostages in one of the rooms, killing one and wounding two before the assault team penetrated to that area. One terrorist was surprised in a side room and shot. PC Lock, who had kept his pistol hidden throughout the siege, wrestled with Salim as he was about to shoot an SAS man. Lock was ordered by the SAS soldier to roll away, and Salim was killed with a burst of fire from the special issue MP5 machine gun.
Controversially two of the gunmen killed were said by some hostages to have thrown away their weapons and surrendered, hands over heads. They were both shot by the SAS after being made to stand against a wall. A subsequent inquest found the soldiers had acted reasonably, fearing one had a grenade and the other was reaching for a weapon.
Another member of the group was killed, and then as hostages were ushered rapidly down the stairs a fifth gunman was seen among them, holding a grenade. As he was surrounded by hostages no shots could be contemplated, so an SAS member clubbed him with his gun and as the terrorist rolled away from the rest he was killed with fire from several machine guns.
One terrorist remained, found outside among the freed hostages. He was dragged towards the embassy by an SAS soldier – it has been speculated since that he was to be shot once inside – but with the media looking on this was stopped by others in the assault team.
All this had gone on with the news cameras running. Both the BBC and ITV cut from normal programmes to show the events. Kate Adie , duty reporter that evening for the BBC, commentated on what she could see as she crouched in the slim shelter of a car door.
The repercussions were many, but above all the legendary status of the SAS regiment was confirmed. The SAS, founded by Colonel David Sterling during the desert fighting in World War II , had always been semi-detached as far as the army’s more conventional top brass were concerned. Prior to the events at Prince’s Gate there was even talk of it being disbanded. Today if someone is said to be ‘in the regiment’ it applies to the SAS.
The sole terrorist to survive, 22-year-old Fowzi Nejad, was jailed for life (later reduced to 25 years) in 1981, and at the end of 2007 was still in prison. Iran seemingly wants him returned on is release. Given the fate he would probably face this is unlikely.
Kate Adie’s career took flight after the siege, and it is seen as a turning point for women reporters everywhere as her example of a calm head in a very fraught situation showed that the ‘men-only’ bias as regards war reporting was a nonsense. PC Lock received the George Cross for his bravery. Chris Cramer went on to head CNN.
Politically Mrs Thatcher did well from the siege. A firm stance against terrorists had been taken. And a marker had been laid down that any future terrorist outrages would face equally strong action.
More famous dates here
9677 views since 22nd February 2007
On this day: