Several dozen U.S. embassies, consulates close as precaution

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- The doors to about a quarter of all U.S. embassies remained shut Wednesday in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack ever against the United States.

About 50 embassies or U.S. consulates -- including those in Japan, Italy, Sweden, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East -- were closed or partially shut down, mostly as a precaution.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said he expected the offices "will all be resuming operations as soon as possible."

The State Department encouraged Americans abroad to stay in contact with the closest U.S. Embassy or consulate, and emphasized that all U.S. missions, even those that were closed, are accessible around-the-clock by phone in case of emergencies.

The safeguard closings were prompted by terrorist attacks Tuesday against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

American diplomats closed the U.S. Embassy in Rome and various consulates in Italy, where national authorities increased security at airports, ports, train stations and foreign trade missions.

"The embassy does not have any credible information of a specific threat against U.S. institutions in Italy," according to a message on the embassy's Web site. Still, diplomats closed shop "to reassess our security posture and as a sign of respect for the victims of terrorism in the U.S. September 11."

In Caracas, Venezuelans approached the U.S. Embassy with flowers, but were not allowed past concrete barricades and security guards posted outside the building, which remained closed Wednesday.

Bouquets also were left behind at the U.S. Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, where the Swiss government ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff.

The attack came on the first working day for the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, Mercer Reynolds.

"A day that began with the happiness of presenting my credentials to President (Moritz) Leuenberger and beginning a new job in an important country ended in shock and sadness," he said.

Reynolds said he was comforted by "the outpouring of support we have received from the Swiss government and people."

Swiss security officials set up heavy steel barriers to block the street leading past the embassy, but allowed people to pass to pay their respects or to go to zoo beyond the embassy.

The West African nation of Liberia, which bristles with the anti-aircraft guns and rocket-launchers of its armed forces at the calmest of times, seized the opportunity to deploy its elite anti-terrorist unit.

Camouflage troops toting AK-47s blocked streets around the U.S. Embassy and heeded President Charles Taylor's orders to stop anyone entering or leaving.

But at the embassy in Helsinki, Finland, "it's business as usual," with diplomats granting visas and conducting other routine activities, said spokeswoman Stacy White.

However, Finnish police provided reinforcements to guard the embassy buildings.