U.S. Embassy in Belgrade Overrun

Poor and mostly Muslim but feverishly pro-Western, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on Sunday, ending a long chapter in the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia. U.S. President George Bush hailed the newly independent Kosovo and officially recognized it as a state and a "close friend" on Monday.
By Peter Finn and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 22, 2008

MOSCOW, Feb. 22 -- A rampaging crowd of several hundred Serb demonstrators, incensed by the U.S. recognition of Kosovo's independence, overran and burned part of the American Embassy in the Serbian capital of Belgrade on Thursday. The assault drew fierce protests from Washington and illustrated the rage in Serbia over the loss of its historic province.

"I'm outraged by the mob attack," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the attacks.

All U.S. personnel at the embassy were accounted for, but a badly burned body, apparently the remains of a protester, was found inside, U.S. 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 U.S. security forces," said William H. Wanlund, an embassy spokesman.

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

The diplomatic facilities of Britain, Germany, Turkey, Croatia and Bosnia also were attacked, but rioters did not enter their grounds, officials said.

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

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

Thursday's assault on the embassy came as the authorities in Belgrade held a rally that drew 200,000 people. 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 rally matched the size of past demonstrations in Belgrade, including the October 2000 popular revolt that toppled Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. He died in The Hague in 2006 while on trial for war crimes committed in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Western diplomats have argued that the independence of Kosovo, which has been administered by the United Nations for the past nine years, was inevitable following 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.

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