Friday, February 22, 2008

U.S. Embassy in Belgrade Attacked

Police is using tear gas to disperse crowds of rioting people who have been attacking embassies in Belgrade. The closed U.S. embassy building has been set on fire. The Turkish, Croatian and Bosnian legations have also come under attack. More than 30 people have been injured.

(CNN) -- Police were guarding the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade on Friday, one day after a charred body was found and dozens of people were reportedly injured in an attack by angry demonstrators protesting Kosovo's independence from Serbia.

Serbs opposed to Kosovo's independence storm the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade Thursday in Belgrade.

The Embassy's consular section remained closed on Friday as officials were advised to remain in their residences and avoid movement amid continuing fears over anti-Western protests, according to a statement on the U.S. Embassy Web site.

The Embassy warned American citizens to avoid areas of demonstration and to exercise "extreme caution."

Throwing rocks, breaking windows and setting fires, the protesters capped a day of mass protest against Western support for an independent Kosovo.

Thursday's violence was part of a much bigger, peaceful demonstration where up to 150,000 people chanted "Kosovo is Serbia," and vowed to never accept the province's independence.

The larger group of protesters marched to the Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava, where a huge outdoor prayer service was held.

Serbian TV showed someone trying to set fire to the U.S. flag at the embassy, which was closed and unstaffed when the masked protesters attacked.

Riot police fired tear gas at the rioters and lines of armored vehicles were on the streets before the embassy perimeter was secured.

Kosovo declared independence last Sunday and the United States was among the first countries to offer official recognition of its split from Serbia. Video Watch a discussion on the history of tense relations between Serbia and Kosovo »

One charred body -- a male protester -- was found in the U.S. Embassy compound, embassy spokesman in Belgrade William Wanlund said.

"I can tell you that it was not an American," said U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. All Americans were safe and accounted for, McCormack said. Video Watch McCormack discuss U.S. embassy security precautions »

Belgrade fire officials said the body was found in an "unoccupied area" of one of the embassy buildings, he said, around the same area as that reached by the demonstrators.

Bratislaw Grubacic, chief editor of VIP magazine in Belgrade, said police reported 32 people injured, including 14 police officers. Video Watch as a protester tries to set fire to the embassy flag »

Teresa Gould, a translator for Belgrade TV, said the Croatian Embassy next door also was attacked. Police quickly rounded up the demonstrators, witnesses said.

Nikola Jovanovic, a political writer for the newspaper Blic, said two floors of the embassy were burned. He estimated about 50 people, including 15 police officers, were injured.

Serbian media, however, estimated that between 96 and 107 people were injured in the protests, up to 35 of them police officers.

Smaller groups attacked police posts outside the Turkish and British embassies in another part of the city, but were beaten back, The Associated Press reported. Photo See photos of the chaos »

"The fact that (independence has) not happened as peacefully as people had hoped is the direct result of the incitement to violence by extremist elements in Belgrade, implicitly and privately supported by the Russians," said Richard Holbrooke, a former negotiator in the Balkans under former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

The U.S. has received assurances from Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica "that there would not be a repeat of this episode, and we will hold them to that," State Department spokesman McCormack said.

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, said: "Those scenes that we saw are regrettable. The Serbian government has repeated time and time again that any solution to the Kosovo problem -- other than peaceful and mutually accepted a compromise solution -- would lead to instability in the region. Unfortunately, this fell on deaf ears."

Kostunica, who earlier addressed the larger peaceful rally, said "Kosovo is Serbia's first name." He called the declaration of independence last Sunday illegal and said he would do all he can to get it annulled.

Tensions also erupted at the Kosovo border checkpoint in Merdare -- about 50 kilometers (30 miles) northeast of Kosovo's capital Pristina -- as several hundred Serbian army reservists clashed with NATO-led peacekeepers and police, AP said.

U.N. police said the demonstrators had come by bus from the Serbian town of Kursumlija and were largely army veterans who had fought with the Serbian side in Kosovo's 1998-1999 war, AP reported. Following the clashes, the demonstrators returned to the Serbian side of the checkpoint.

Meanwhile, several hundred Bosnian Serbs rallied in the Bosnian city of Banja Luka and in the Sarajevo suburb of Lukavica, AP said.

Students in Lukavica were seen waving Serbian flags and singing Serbian patriotic songs while police in Banja Luka were stopping demonstrators from marching on the U.S. consulate there.

The breakaway region has been recognized by the U.S. and several EU nations including the UK, France and Germany but the government in Belgrade maintains that Kosovo is a part of Serbia.

On Thursday, Italy became the latest European nation to recognize Kosovo's sovereignty, AP reported.

Russia and China continue to oppose Kosovo's declaration of independence while Spain has expressed concern that recognition will give momentum to secessionist movements in other countries, such as the Basques in northern Spain

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