Serbia Withdrew Police, Intelligence Chief Says

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Serbian government decided to pull back its police in Belgrade last Thursday so that demonstrators could attack the U.S. and British embassies, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told a Senate committee yesterday.

"We have good information that when the U.S. embassy and the British embassy and others were attacked, a decision was taken by the government of Serbia actually to pull the police back and allow them to be attacked, burn the embassy and conduct the violence they conducted," McConnell told the Senate Armed Services Committee in answer to a question during his testimony on worldwide threats.

But after his testimony, a spokesman for McConnell, Ross Feinstein, played down the statement. "There was no final conclusion or determination on this," he said. Feinstein later called to say McConnell's statement was "based on what we knew from eyewitness accounts" reported in a Belgrade newspaper, Danas. But, Feinstein added, "I'm not going to say it was the only thing" the director drew on in making the remark.

Although witnesses had reported that Serbian police had appeared to withdraw when demonstrators approached the embassies, this was the first time a U.S. official said the Serbian government deliberately permitted the violence to proceed.

The assault on the U.S. embassy came after a rally in Belgrade by Serbs incensed by the U.S. recognition of Kosovo's independence. Hundreds of protesters overran and burned part of the embassy.

On the day of the attack, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters that the department had spoken to the Serbian government about its obligation to protect the embassy. "They have been, up until this point, very good in providing police assets to ensure that the embassy facility was protected," adding that "we are in contact with them, to make sure that they devote the assets to deal with this situation."

One day after the attack, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel attributed the attacks to "hooligans and thugs." He added, "We don't believe that this is the face that Serbia wants to present to the world."

Attempts to reach Serbian government officials in Washington and New York late yesterday were unsuccessful.

McConnell, however, described yesterday a disagreement between Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian President Boris Tadic. Kostunica, he said, "is more closely aligned with Russia" and "is determined to roll [the independence of Kosovo] back if at all possible. Without elaborating, McConnell said that "some level of violence is probably going to ensue." At the rally that preceded the embassy attack, Kostunica told the crowd: "As long as we live, Kosovo is Serbia."

Tadic "is convinced that integration with the European Union . . . is a better course of action," McConnell said. Last week, Tadic condemned the violence and told reporters it must "never happen again."

Discussing another troubled area, McConnell provided a downbeat report on Afghanistan, disclosing that an intelligence study had determined that the Kabul-based government of President Hamid Karzai controls about 31 percent of the country's population. He said the Taliban controls about 11 percent and that the rest is under local tribal control.

McConnell said violence had gone up because U.S. and NATO forces have taken aggressive actions and that many Taliban leaders had been killed or captured. But those actions provoked an increase in the use of suicide bombers and roadside explosive devices.

Overall, however, the growing insurgency in Afghanistan has "been sustained in the south. It's grown a bit in the east, and what we've seen are elements of it spread to the west and the north," McConnell said. The key to the increase has been the "de facto safe haven in Pakistan [that] gives them the ability to train and recruit, rest and recuperate, and then come back into Afghanistan."

On North Korea, McConnell said intelligence analysts believe that Pyongyang has enough plutonium for "at least six nuclear weapons." But he added that analysts are less certain that North Korea has begun to produce highly enriched uranium, a probability now considered medium instead of high.

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