NEWS

US Embassy anthrax alarm

The US Embassy in Athens has become the latest site of an anthrax scare after a suspicious envelope in a diplomatic pouch from Washington was opened in its mail room this week, officials said yesterday. The results of tests on the suspect substance are expected on Monday. In the meantime, five employees who were in or near the embassy’s mail room are being provided with antibiotics as a precaution. In a separate incident, a suspicious envelope arrived at the US naval support facility at Souda Bay, Crete, at 10 a.m. yesterday. Its postmark did not correspond with the address of the sender. It was taken for testing but there was no sign that it contained any white powder, the sign of a suspect substance. State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher confirmed a report on Athens’s Mega Channel television station yesterday that a suspect letter had arrived at the Athens embassy. He said that investigations were being conducted in many US embassies and that most results were negative. Regarding Athens, he said: We’ve also got traces of bacteria, its not necessarily anthrax, but some kind of bacteria, in a mail bag that we had in Athens, so additional testing is underway. It is noteworthy that the suspect letter came in a diplomatic pouch which is filled and sealed in Washington. If it turns out that the suspect bacteria are anthrax spores, it will indicate that there is a security problem at the State Department. According to sources in Athens, the pouch arrived at the US Embassy on October 31. The recipient’s name was not made public. A mail room employee opened the envelope which was found to contain a substance that was described as suspicious. The mail room was immediately cordoned off, all the necessary measures were taken and the substance was sent to a laboratory to determine what it was. The laboratory is at the Evangelismos Hospital, which last month determined that a suspect powder in a letter addressed to the former US ambassador, Nicholas Burns, was harmless. Public Order Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis, Health Minister Alekos Papadopoulos and Alternate Foreign Minister Tassos Yiannitsis were briefed on the incident. Sources said that the Greek authorities will not get involved in the investigation but that the general secretary for civil defense is in continual contact with the US Embassy. If confirmed as anthrax, the Athens case will mark the third US diplomatic mission (after Lima and Vilnius) to have discovered trace amounts of anthrax in mail pouches sent from Washington. Such mail was halted after an employee at an off-site State Department facility contracted inhalation anthrax on October 26.