Demonstrators attacked the U.S. Embassy and set part of it ablaze on Thursday as tens of thousands of angry Serbs took to the streets of Belgrade to protest Kosovo’s declaration of independence.
The United States has been a strong advocate of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia and was among the first countries to recognize the new state, stoking deep resentment.
Rian Harris, an embassy spokeswoman, said that a body had been found inside the building, but that all embassy staff members were accounted for.
Witnesses said that at least 100 people broke into the embassy, which was closed, and burned some of its rooms. One protester ripped the American flag from the facade of the building. An estimated 1,000 demonstrators cheered as the vandals, some wearing masks to conceal their faces, jumped onto the building’s balcony waving a Serbian flag and chanting “Serbia, Serbia!” the witnesses said. A convoy of police firing tear gas was able to disperse the crowd.
The Associated Press reported that the small fires at the embassy were quickly extinguished by firefighters.
Serbian television reported that the Croatian Embassy had also been attacked, and the state news agency said the Bosnian and Turkish Embassies were also targeted. The police said at least 140 people had been injured in the incidents, 32 of them police. Security sources estimated that 150,000 people joined the protests.
Groups broke into a McDonald’s in central Belgrade and destroyed its interior. Witnesses said vandals were attacking foreign-owned shops, including a Nike store, and were seen carrying off shoes and other goods as the Serbian police looked on.
The U.S. Embassy had been closed since Sunday after it was stoned by demonstrators, and employees had been told to stay home.
R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, telephoned Serbian officials to formally complain about the breaching of the embassy, said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. McCormack told reporters on Thursday that the United States would “hold the Serbian government personally responsible for the safety and well-being of our embassy employees.”
He added that the security that had been provided was completely inadequate.
At the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador, said he was “outraged” by the attack on the embassy and would be seeking a unanimous statement from the 15-member Security Council condemning it.
The violence fueled growing fears in Washington and Brussels that Serbia was turning to the virulent nationalism of the past.
But Serbian analysts predicted that the country would ultimately embrace the West as it came to terms with losing its medieval heartland.
In recent days, Western leaders have looked on with growing alarm as Serbia’s hard-line prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, who helped lead the revolution that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, has replicated the nationalist rhetoric of the late dictator, who used Serbs’ outrage that their ancestral heartland was dominated by Muslim Albanians to come to power in Serbia.