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Arsonist strikes Chinese consulate in San Francisco

By Sarah McBride and Adam Rose

SAN FRANCISCO/BEIJING (Reuters) - The Chinese consulate in San Francisco sustained fire and smoke damage after an arsonist struck it, the consulate said on Thursday, but there were no injuries and the consulate was open for business.

The consulate said video cameras recorded the arsonist on Wednesday night, carrying two cans of gasoline from a van parked on the street and then setting an embassy gate ablaze. The San Francisco Fire Department said it responded two minutes after the fire was reported and quickly put out the fire. The U.S. FBI, which is investigating the arson, said no suspects have been arrested.

"We strongly condemn this despicable attack," said Wang Chuan, the consulate spokesman, reading from a statement at a brief news conference. "We urge the U.S. side to take all necessary measures to provide adequate protection for Chinese consular personnel and properties."

Chuan gave the news conference standing in front of the Laguna Street entrance to the consulate, where a door flanked by statues of lions was charred and the area above it blackened by smoke. Broken glass from a window above the gateway of the door lay on the steps, along with some debris. The interior door just inside the gate was boarded with plywood.

The entrance hit by the arsonist is around the corner from where most of the public enters the building on Geary Street.

The consulate said it was working with U.S. authorities, including the San Francisco Police Department, the Fire Department and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security of the U.S. State Department, and urged them to solve the crime quickly.

The San Francisco Fire Department said it received a report of a fire at 9:33 p.m. PST, arrived on the scene within two minutes and brought the fire under control within six minutes, and has turned over the investigation to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

FBI spokesman Peter Lee said the FBI's evidence response team responded to the scene on Wednesday night "to see if there is any actionable evidence to hopefully bring the perpetrator or perpetrators to justice."

A small group of staff members was in the consulate when it was attacked, Chuan said. He said video cameras recorded the suspect throwing at least one bottle through the glass over the gate. He declined to provide details on the suspect's gender, age or ethnicity, or to speculate about possible motives.

The consulate will remain open for business, he added. Dozens of visa applicants entered the consulate after lining up early at the Geary Street entrance, some unaware of the fire that had burned around the corner.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the United States is "deeply concerned" by the reported arson attack. "We take this incident very seriously," she said at a briefing in Washington. She did not comment on whether security was being stepped up at the consulate or at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, and said she was not aware of any specific threats against the consulate.

Protests are common outside Chinese diplomatic missions in Western countries, but acts of violence are rare.

The safety of diplomatic personnel and missions is a sensitive issue in China after a 1999 incident in which the U.S. military accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during air strikes against Serbia.

That bombing, which many Chinese still believe was intentional, sparked violent anti-NATO demonstrations across China and brought relations with the United States close to a breaking point.

(Reporting by Adam Rose in Beijing, Sarah McBride in San Francisco, Doina Chiacu in Washington, DC, and Dan Levine in Oakland, California; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and David Gregorio)

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