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Embassy attacks spark international protests

Latest update : 2008-02-22

The US strongly condemned the attack on its Belgrade embassy, calling the rioters "thugs". Several embassies were targeted in nationalist violence that also drew EU and UN protests. (Report: O.Fairclough)

Serb rioters enraged by Western support for Kosovo's independence set ablaze the US embassy in Belgrade, leaving one dead in violence angrily condemned by Washington and the United Nations.

Nearly 100 people were injured in unrest late Thursday that followed a largely peaceful rally of 150,000 demonstrators against Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia on Sunday.

The United States called the rioters "thugs" and there was also a strong protest by the European Union.

With no police in sight, several hundred men dressed in hooded sports tops and scarves threw flares and stormed the US mission, sparking a fire that lasted for more than an hour.

A charred body later recovered from the embassy was not identified, but an embassy spokeswoman said the victim was not a staff member.

The US State Department lodged a stern complaint with Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns calling Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic to formally protest.

"The message was very clear: that the situation was intolerable," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Although riot police eventually arrived to disperse the rioters, there was particular criticism of the apparent lack of Serbian security during the rally.

"They needed to act immediately to provide the adequate security forces so that our embassy compound and our personnel were not under attack, McCormack said.

A spokeswoman for President George W. Bush said he had been briefed about the incident as he returned to Washington from a five-country Africa tour.

"We have made known to the Serbian government our concern and displeasure that their police force did not prevent this incident," spokeswoman Dana Perino said. Perino said the embassy had been "attacked by thugs".

Other embassies of countries that have recognised Kosovo's break from Serbia were also targeted in the rioting.

Serbian President Boris Tadic, on a visit to Romania, appealed for an immediate end to the violence, Beta news agency reported.

"To all those who are participating in the unrest, I want to ask them to pull back. It only harms the defence of our integrity and sovereignty and the defence of our Kosovo," Tadic was quoted as saying.

There was strong condemnation from the European Union and in the UN Security Council, where Serbia's main ally Russia had blocked repeated attempts to move Kosovo further down the path of independence.

UN Security Council members "condemn in the strongest terms the mob attacks," said a statement read by Panama's UN Ambassador Ricard Arias, the council chair this month.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana called the violence "totally unacceptable" and appealed "for calm, restraint and responsibility".

Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Jandrokovic strongly protested to Jeremic after the Croatian embassy was also attacked, the Croatian foreign ministry said.

So far, 23 of the 27 EU member states have backed Kosovo's independence.

As well as the arson attack on the US embassy, a German embassy guard house was torched and a car set ablaze outside the Canadian diplomatic mission. Other embassies targeted included those of Bosnia, Croatia and Turkey.

The rioters later moved to other parts of the city, setting alight a McDonald's restaurant, ransacking a Levi's clothing shop and using uprooted street signs and even trees to fight police.

The unrest was the latest in a series of violent incidents following the declaration of independence from Serbia by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian-dominated parliament.

Many Serbs consider Kosovo, which has dozens of Serbian churches and monasteries, the cradle of their history, culture and religion.

Before the mass rally in Belgrade turned violent, protestors had chanted "Kosovo is the heart of Serbia" and listened to emotive speeches condemning the split.

"We must show that we are all against this fake independence. Taking Kosovo away from Serbia is like taking away your leg, arm or even child," said Vesna Vujacic, a 54-year-old teacher.

Addressing the huge crowd, Kostunica promised Serbia would never accept Kosovo's independence.

"Kosovo is Serbia's first name. Kosovo belongs to Serbia. Kosovo belongs to Serbian people. It has been like this forever and it will be like this forever," said Kostunica.

Serbia is recalling its ambassadors from nations that recognise Kosovo, including Australia and the United States.

Kosovo came under UN control in mid-1999 after NATO bombing drove out forces loyal to Serbia's late strongman Slobodan Milosevic who had been waging a crackdown on separatist Albanian guerrillas.

Date created : 2008-02-22