Protesting Serbs set fire at US Embassy

Demonstrators decry support for secession; Washington urges security

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Finn and Robin Wright
Washington Post / February 22, 2008

MOSCOW - A rampaging crowd of several hundred Serb demonstrators, incensed by the US recognition of Kosovo's independence, overran and burned part of the American Embassy in the Serbian capital of Belgrade yesterday.

The attack occurred as the Belgrade government staged a rally over Kosovo independence that drew 200,000 people, and illustrated the rage in Serbia over the loss of its historic province.

It prompted fierce protests from Washington. "I'm outraged by the mob attack," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to the United Nations. The UN Security Council condemned the attacks.

All American personnel at the embassy were accounted for, but a badly burned body, apparently the remains of a protester, was found inside, US officials said.

"It appeared to have been a protester who was caught in the fire that had been set by the protesters, not as a result of any interaction with US security forces," said William Wanlund, an embassy spokesman.

Embassy officials, including 70 diplomats who serve in Belgrade, were not in the embassy at the time of the attack. US Marine guards and other security personnel were not in the chancery, the building that was attacked, when demonstrators entered the facility, officials said.

Despite skirmishes around the embassy on Sunday, riot police were largely invisible yesterday when demonstrators, their faces covered, rammed their way into the facility.

One man ripped down the US flag while others waved the Serbian flag from a chancery balcony. Smoke began to billow from the building as protesters tossed furniture and papers - none of them sensitive, US officials said - out of broken windows. The crowd chanted, "Serbia, Serbia."

Police arrived about 45 minutes after the fire broke out, and after the rioters fled the building. Firefighters quickly doused the flames.

There were also attacks on the diplomatic facilities of Britain, Germany, Turkey, and Croatia and Bosnia, but rioters did not enter their grounds, officials said. Other crowds in Belgrade ransacked a McDonald's and looted stores.

Doctors at Belgrade's emergency clinic reported treating 96 injured people, 32 of them police officers. All had minor injuries, and many of the injured protesters were drunk, officials said.

Sunday's declaration of independence by Kosovo, which is 90 percent ethnic Albanian but regarded by Serbs as the cradle of their civilization, sparked violence in Serb enclaves in Kosovo and stone-throwing at the US embassy in Belgrade.

The United States has been an open sponsor of Kosovo's push for independence since a NATO bombing campaign drove Serb forces from the province in 1999.

Yesterday's main rally, which was called by the government, included a mixture of speeches and patriotic songs. As part of the event, schools in Serbia were closed and free train rides were offered to encourage demonstrators to travel to the capital.

"As long as we live, Kosovo is Serbia," Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica told the crowd in front of the old Yugoslav Parliament building. "Serbia has annulled and will annul every act of the illegal and fictitious state created on its territory by the use of force."

The Serbian government has said it will not resort to military force, but the street violence could be a tactic to slow moves by more countries to follow the United States, Britain, Germany, and France in quickly recognizing Kosovo's independence.

Yesterday's rally matched the size of past demonstrations in Belgrade, including the October 2000 popular revolt that toppled President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia. He died in The Hague while on trial for war crimes committed in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Western diplomats have maintained that the independence of Kosovo, which has been administered by the UN for the last nine years, was inevitable after the brutality of Milosevic's campaign to subdue an insurgency there in the 1990s. It culminated in the mass expulsion of tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes and into neighboring Albania and Macedonia.

The attack on the embassy building was the first attack on a US embassy since Sept. 12, 2006, when Syrian security guards stopped an attempt to blow up the compound.

The last time a mob broke into one was the Iranians' seizure of the US embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, taking the American staffers hostage.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino criticized Serbia's government, saying the embassy "was attacked by thugs" and Serb police didn't do enough to stop it.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called on the government to "devote the assets to deal with this situation," adding that Serbia has a responsibility "to ensure that that facility is adequately protected."

A greater crisis had been avoided, McCormack said, because the embassy opted to close at noon to ensure that there were not hundreds of employees and visitors there.

Sporadic violence in the predominantly Serbian region of northern Kosovo, including attacks in recent days on UN border posts, have raised fears that Belgrade might attempt to partition the new state.

But such a move, even if it could be achieved in the face of NATO's presence on the ground, would essentially abandon nearly half of the Serbs who live deeper in the former province and are surrounded by ethnic Albanian communities.

Moreover, it would effectively end Belgrade's claim on all of Kosovo, something Serbia does not appear willing to countenance at this time.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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