Letter tells of rocket hit on US embassy

Other News Materials 9 February 2008 05:00 (UTC +04:00)

( AP ) - As combat raged in Chad's capital last weekend, U.S. Embassy staffers were busily shredding sensitive documents in the ambassador's office when a rocket blasted through a wall, roared across the room and burst out the opposite wall before exploding.

No one was injured in the blast, or when two stray artillery shells hit two residences inside the embassy compound, the evacuated public affairs officer, Solomon Atayi, says in an email letter written Thursday to colleagues and friends. The Associated Press obtained a copy Friday, and Atayi also posted it on the State Department's blog site.

U.S. officials had reported earlier in the week that the embassy had been struck by a few stray shells during the weekend battle before it was evacuated, but the letter is the first account with details.

Atayi didn't witness the incident at the ambassador's office, saying he was with some embassy employees in the U.S. housing compound during the fighting in N'Djamena between Chadian troops and rebels. It is not clear which day the rocket hit.

"A missile went straight through the ambassador's office while a group of them were in the office burning classified documents; the missile just went through and just pierced both walls and exploded outside. I cannot explain how that happened, but that was what happened," Atayi says.

Contacted Friday at a hotel in Yaounde, Cameroon, Atayi confirmed that he wrote the letter but declined to elaborate. "I think the letter says it all," he said.

His letter says that a U.S. military plane flown in from Germany evacuated spouses, children and other dependents of embassy employees Feb. 1, before rebels seeking to oust Chadian President Idriss Deby arrived on the outskirts of the capital.

Ten Navy SEALs dispatched in haste from Baghdad arrived to protect the staff who stayed behind "just on time ... before the start of the war," Atayi writes.

Embassy employees were divided into two groups - one remaining with Ambassador Louis Nigro inside the embassy, Atayi and 10 others staying at the U.S. housing compound.

"We were all put in one room, and the 11 of us were right on the floor. We could hear the fight. One tank stopped right under our wall, and each time it fired, the room vibrated. We could hear bullets flying as well as the rocket-propelled grenades," the letter says.

Fighting on Feb. 2 raged from morning until 5 p.m., when everything went quiet to observe the Muslim evening prayer time, it says. At 9 p.m., the shooting started again.

When they rebels advanced on the presidential palace, looting started, the letter says.

The SEALs were on top of the highest building in the compound and had authorization to fire on anyone entering the complex. But Atayi's home was outside the compound.

"We were hearing from the local guards who stayed at our separated residence how one after the other they had to abandon each post because the house was invaded by looters," the letter says. "After several hours, I heard what I was fearing the most ... 'Sir, if you are hearing this, I am sorry. They took absolutely everything.'"

Atayi laments the loss of the 2,000 pounds of goods he had shipped in for his assignment in Chad.

"Yes, I lost absolutely everything. Everything. And I am not the only one. We all lost everything except our life. God was looking over us," he says.

When the fighting stopped last Sunday, French soldiers based in N'Djamena arrived at the housing compound "in armored trucks that looked like tanks" and evacuated the staff to the French military base. A French helicopter picked up the ambassador, Marine guards and other staff in the embassy offices.

"I went to Chad with over 2,000 lbs of goods, I left with one bag which contained one pants, 2 socks and 2 shirts," Atayi writes.

In the letter, Atayi is mostly dispassionate, but he turns emotional when writing about looters taking away "all my figurines and all our Christmas decorations which we have been collecting for many years and were planning to pass them to the children."

Still, he says, he has no regrets - "no, not at all" - about going to Chad.

He found his work gratifying, donating books to Chadian schools to help the children, seeing people cry with gratitude for gifts such as help for Catholic nuns helping abused women.

"I loved it and will go back if I have the chance," he writes.