A little corner of Afghanistan that was forever England, with its rose garden and mock Tudor homes, faced destruction yesterday when a mob of 5,000 Afghans attacked the Pakistani embassy in Kabul.
Pakistan, whose previous embassy was sacked in similar circumstances 18 months ago, last year inherited the British compound, built at the turn of the century in a forest glade overlooking the battered Afghan capital. British diplomats quit in 1989, when the Communist regime of President Najibullah seemed likely to collapse.
Shouting "death to Benazir Bhutto" the mob stormed the gates and set the main building in the compound, the old British embassy, ablaze. They were protesting against Pakistan's alleged support for the Islamic Taliban militia, which took the city of Herat on Monday with scarcely a shot fired. Herat's commander, Ismail Khan, was one of President Burhanuddin Rabbani's few allies left in the bloody civil war.
The Defence Minister, Younis Qanouni, claimed that security men at the embassy gate had tried to stop the protesters, but lost control when a shot fired from the embassy killed a man. Reporters said several dead bodies were lying near the gate, but Islamabad denied that any shots were fired at the crowd. The Pakistani ambassador was reportedly dragged out of the embassy and badly beaten up.
Built when the British Raj still wielded influence over Afghan affairs, the Kabul legation was a favourite watering hole for travellers who had braved deserts, brigands and mountains while crossing from Persia to India. Despite extremes of heat and cold, a battalion of gardeners kept up a rose garden that was fondly called "Little Surrey". The main building, which had been "completely gutted", was renowned for its ballroom, library and wine cellar, reputedly the best between Istanbul and the Khyber Pass.
A few Gurkhas were left on guard after Britain withdrew its diplomats, but in the chaos after the Soviet-backed regime fell to Afghan Islamic rebels in 1992 and the rebels quarrelled among themselves, the decision was taken to hand the compound to Pakistan. Mr Qanouni said he was "unhappy" over the embassy's destruction, but saw no reason to apologise.
"This was a matter for the people, who are angry about foreign involvement in south-west Afghanistan," he said. President Rabbani wrote to the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, complaining about alleged Pakistani complicity in the fall of Herat. Pakistan has denied giving aid to the Taliban militia, an organisation made up of Islamic clergymen and their students who are trying, in typical Afghan fashion - by force - to bring peace back to this shell-shocked country.
The defeat of the pro-government forces in Herat is a blow to Mr Rabbani. The Taliban now controls the south and western provinces, and Kabul claims it could only have scored so many victories with arms and help from Pakistani military intelligence. Iran, which has been sending home thousands of Afghan refugees, has stopped repatriation until the turmoil in Herat, near the Iranian border, subsides. More than 150,000 Afghans have been ordered to leave Iran by 1998.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies