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U.S. Embassy Attacked

Protesters set Belgrade compound on fire after mass demonstrations

By Laura Leigh Davidson | null null , null
Protesters outside the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, February 21, 2008. (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer (SERBIA) ©Reuters)
Protesters outside the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, February 21, 2008. (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer (SERBIA) ©Reuters)

Angry rioters attacked the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, on Thursday. Belgrade is the capital of Serbia, a country located on the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe.

Masked men broke into one of the compound's buildings and set fire to an office. The flames spread up the side of the building as rioters outside burned American flags in protest. One person, believed to be a rioter, was found dead in the U.S. office building after the fire had been extinguished.

The violence came at the end of a day of mass demonstrations against a declaration of independence by Kosovo, the southernmost province of Serbia. Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority wants to create its own state, and made that desire official on February 17 by seceding (formally separating) from Serbia.

Serbs consider Kosovo the ancient heartland of their culture and are angry at the countries that have recognized Kosovo's declaration of independence. The United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Italy, and Australia are a few of the major countries which have expressed support for the province that wants to be Europe's newest sovereign nation.

The same group of protesters who attacked the U.S. Embassy also targeted the Croatian Embassy nearby. Smaller groups assaulted police posts outside the Turkish and British embassies in another part of the city but were stopped before they could do much damage.

Rioters spread the destruction throughout Belgrade, demolishing a McDonald's restaurant and breaking into surrounding shops. People were seen carrying off running shoes, tracksuits, and other sporting goods from a department store.

International Reaction

White House spokesperson Dana Perino responded to the situation swiftly, saying the embassy "was attacked by thugs" and that Serb police didn't do enough to stop it. The last time a mob broke into a U.S. embassy was in 1979, when Iranians seized the embassy in Tehran and took American staff there hostage for an extended period of time.

The United Nations (UN) Security Council condemned "in the strongest terms the mob attacks," saying host governments like Belgrade must honor their obligation to protect diplomatic premises.

Today's surge in rioting is the culmination of smaller outbursts of violence in Belgrade and Kosovo earlier this week. The rioting is evidence that Serbia will not give up rule over Kosovo easily, although the Serbian government has said it won't resort to military force.

Serbia has some powerful allies in its bid to keep control of Kosovo: Russia and China. The two countries have not recognized Kosovo as an independent state. As members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, Russia and China can and likely will prevent formal recognition of Kosovo's independence by the UN anytime soon.

Serbian President Boris Tadic, who was visiting Romania Thursday, appealed for calm and urged protesters to get off the streets. He said the violence was "damaging" Serbia's efforts to defend its claim to Kosovo.

Uncharted Territory

Kosovo's declaration of independence is the latest episode in a historic saga of political change on the Balkan Peninsula. Once part of a larger federation of states known as Yugoslavia, Kosovo is a very poor landlocked territory of 2 million inhabitants. The region has been a United Nations protectorate (a relationship of protection and partial control assumed by a superior power over a dependent country or region) since 1999, and is policed by 16,000 NATO troops. Its unemployment rate is about 60 percent, and the average monthly wage is about $250.

Electricity is so undependable that lights go out in the capital city of Pristina several times a day. But a lack of modern resources didn't stop the Kosovo celebration on February 17. Despite freezing temperatures and heavy snow, Ethnic Albanians from as far away as the United States poured into Kosovo to celebrate "independence day."

Beating drums, waving Albanian flags, and throwing firecrackers, the crowds chanted: "Independence! Independence! We are free at last!"


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