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Published: Friday, 2/22/2008

American embassy set afire in Belgrade


BELGRADE - 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 yesterday.

The assault drew fierce protests from Washington and illustrated the rage in Serbia over the loss of its historic province.

"Our embassy was attacked by thugs," White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters aboard Air Force One as President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returned from a trip to Africa. "We have made known to the Serbian govern-ment our concern and displeasure that their police force did not prevent this incident."

"I'm outraged by the mob attack," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He said he would ask the United Nations Security Council to condemn it.

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.

The U.S. Embassy had been closed since Sunday after it was stoned by demonstrators, and employees had been told to stay home. About 70 diplomats serve in Belgrade, officials said.

There were also attacks on the diplomatic facilities of Britain, Germany, Turkey, and Croatia and Bosnia, but rioters did not enter their grounds, officials said.

The U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the attacks on the embassies in the Serbian capital, saying host governments like Belgrade must honor their obligation to protect diplomatic premises.

Sunday's declaration of independence by Kosovo, which is 90 percent ethnic Albanian but 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.

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

The assault on the embassy came as the authorities in Belgrade held a rally that drew 200,000 people. Schools in Serbia were closed yesterday, 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 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 U.N. for the last nine years, was inevitable following the brutality of Milosevic's campaign to subdue an insurgency there in the 1990s.

Sporadic violence in the predominantly Serbian region of northern Kosovo, including attacks in recent days on U.N. border posts, has 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, would essentially abandon nearly half of the Serbs who live deeper in the former province and are surrounded by ethnic Albanian communities. Also, it would effectively end Belgrade's claim on all of Kosovo, something Serbia does not appear willing to countenance at this time.

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