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foreign policy

Sudanese demonstrators destroy the U.S. embassy in Khartoum September 14, 2012. At least one protester was killed on Friday during a demonstration against an anti-Islam film outside the U.S. embassy in Sudan, a doctor said.MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH/Reuters

The temporary closing of three Canadian embassies following violent protests against an obscure U.S. anti-Islam film highlights the stark reality that few, if any, of the country's foreign missions are equipped to repel mob attacks.

"We're looking at this day by day and monitoring the situation," said Rick Roth, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

Ottawa ordered the one-day closing of its embassies in Egypt, Libya and Sudan on Sunday. As a security precaution and to protect Canadian personnel, Mr. Roth said, the embassy in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum will remain closed Monday.

The combination of Ottawa's strident public support for Israel and unstable new regimes in Muslim countries such as Egypt and Libya means some Canadian embassies may be more vulnerable than ever, according to security experts and former Canadian diplomats.

"I don't think we've ever thought of a Canadian embassy as something that was going to be attacked by a large crowd," said Peter Jones, a former top federal security analyst and now an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. "We are not a country that's traditionally been targeted by groups or organizations that want to do harm. That may be changing now."

It's not clear whether some of these countries have the ability to control violent anti-Western protests, he added. "We've seen rapid change in the last year in some countries, given the events of the Arab Spring."

Canada has 30 people at its Cairo embassy, which is located near the U.S. embassy, where protesters scaled the walls last week. The embassies in Tripoli and Khartoum each have eight employees. All of them were ordered to stay home Sunday.

Federal officials would not comment on what other security precautions they're taking.

Ottawa is spending $450-million over seven years to beef up security at its foreign missions. The government is also reviewing the findings of an outside consultant, paid $2-million this year to do security threat ratings for embassies and consulates in 174 countries.

But John Mundy, a career diplomat and former Canadian ambassador to Iran, said no amount of security can protect embassies if host countries either can't or won't protect foreign diplomats and installations.

"Even if you have a true fortress, and some missions around the world are fortresses, the best fortress in the world can't protect you if the host authority can't also provide protection," he said.

Countries have an obligation under international law to protect embassies and foreign diplomats. Citing security concerns, Canada abruptly closed its embassy in Tehran last week and cut off diplomatic relations with Iran.

Disarray in the security forces of countries that threw out repressive regimes during the Arab spring has made them less reliable in terms of controlling violent street protests.

"You're getting now to a situation where new governments are feeling their way, they have some sympathy for the concerns on the street," Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Israel and Jordan said Sunday on CTV's Question Period. "They have to find a balance between showing sympathy for insults to Islam and getting these guys off the street, stopping the terror attacks. And that, in many ways, is the dilemma that those governments face."

Mr. Bell also suggested that Canada's strong pro-Israel stand means Canada may be seen as "hostile" in some Muslim countries.

Like other countries, Canada sometimes uses military personnel and private contractors to protect its embassies. But they're typically there to control access to the building and protect documents and equipment, not to thwart attacks.

"I'm not aware of any embassy that has the tools to resist a determined attack," Mr. Jones said. "It's not how these things are designed."