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.
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.
Despite its size, the main rally Thursday, a mixture of speeches and patriotic songs, was somewhat listless, observers said.
Sporadic violence in the predominantly Serb region of northern Kosovo, including attacks in recent days on U.N. 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.
International officials fear that Serbia, and Serbs living in northern Kosovo, will attempt to draw ethnic Albanians into conflict to undermine their claims that they intend to build a multiethnic democratic state.
Kostunica told the crowd Thursday that Serbia has the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia has been Serbia's most vocal ally in opposing Kosovo's declaration of independence, which has also been recognized by leading European countries such as Britain, France and Germany.
"The Russians are behind this because they have encouraged the worst and most extremist elements in Serbia for the last year," former U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated with Milosevic in the run-up to NATO's bombing campaign, said on CNN.
Despite skirmishes around the U.S. Embassy on Sunday, riot police were largely invisible Thursday when demonstrators, their faces covered, rammed their way into the facility.
One man ripped down the U.S. 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, U.S. officials said -- out of broken windows. The crowd chanted, "Serbia, Serbia."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called on the Serbian 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 closed at noon to ensure that hundreds of employees and visitors would not be there.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice directed Undersecretary R. Nicholas Burns to call the Serbian prime minister and foreign minister to say the situation was "intolerable," McCormack said.
Kostunica assured Burns that there would not be a repeat of the attack.
Riot police did not begin to disperse the crowd until 30 minutes after the embassy had been breached by demonstrators. The Reuters news agency said 97 people were injured in the street clashes, including 32 police officers and a Dutch reporter.
Zoran Zivkovic, a former Serbian prime minister, told the Bloomberg news agency that local police guarding the U.S. Embassy "acted as if someone told them to stay idle and tolerate looting and burning."
Wright reported from Washington.