MOSCOW – 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 on Thursday. The assault drew fierce protests from Washington and illustrated the rage in Serbia over the loss of its historic province.
“I’m outraged by the mob attack,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the attacks.
Coming after smaller outbursts of violence in Belgrade as well as attacks on a U.N. building and police checkpoints in Kosovo, the surge of rioting underlined the determination of Serbs not to give up Kosovo quietly.
The Serbian government has said it won’t resort to military force, but the street violence could be a tactic to slow moves by more countries to follow the U.S., Britain, Germany and France in quickly recognizing Kosovo’s independence.
All U.S. personnel at the Belgrade embassy were accounted for but a badly burned body, apparently the remains of a protester, was found inside, U.S. officials said.
“It appeared to have been a protester who was caught in the fire that had been set by the protesters, not as a result of any interaction with U.S. security forces,” said William Wanlund, an embassy spokesman.
Embassy officials, including 70 diplomats who serve in Belgrade, were not in the embassy at the time of the attack. U.S. Marine guards and other security personnel were not in the chancery, the building that was attacked, when demonstrators entered the facility, 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.
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 U.S. 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 authorities in Belgrade held a rally that drew 200,000 people. Schools in Serbia were closed Thursday 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.
Milosevic 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. It culminated in the mass expulsion of tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes and into neighboring Albania and Macedonia.
Despite its size, the main rally Thursday, a mixture of speeches and patriotic songs, was somewhat listless, observers said.
Sporadic violence in the predominantly Serbian region of northern Kosovo, including attacks in recent days on U.N. border posts, have raised fears that Belgrade might attempt to partition the new state.
International officials fear that Belgrade, and Serbs living in northern Kosovo, will attempt to draw ethnic Albanians into conflict to undermine their claims that they intend to build a multi-ethnic, democratic state.
Kostunica told the crowd Thursday they have the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia has been Serbia’s most vocal ally in opposing Kosovo’s declaration of independence, which has also been recognized by leading European countries such as Britain, France and Germany.
“The Russians are behind this because they have encouraged the worst and most extremist elements in Serbia for the last year,” former U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated with Milosevic in the run-up to NATO’s bombing campaign, said on CNN.
Despite skirmishes around the embassy on Sunday, riot police were largely invisible Thursday when demonstrators, their faces covered, rammed their way into the facility.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called on the Serbian government to “devote the assets to deal with this situation,” adding that Serbia has a responsibility “to ensure that that facility is adequately protected.”
A greater crisis had been avoided, McCormack said, because the embassy opted to close at noon.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice directed Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns to call the Serbian prime minister and foreign minister to say the situation was “intolerable,” McCormack said.
Kostunica assured Burns that there would not be a repeat of the attack.