BELGRADE, Serbia – Protesters broke into the U.S. embassy in Belgrade on Thursday and set fires, cheered on by crowds outside rallying against U.S. support for Kosovo’s independence.
Doors were ripped off, set on fire and wedged in the embassy windows. Black smoke billowed from the building. Papers and chairs were thrown out of the windows.
One protester climbed up to the first floor, ripped the U.S. flag off its pole and briefly put up a Serbian flag in its place.
Some protesters jumped up and down on the embassy balcony, holding up a Serbian flag as the crowd below of about 1,000 people cheered them on, shouting “Serbia, Serbia”.
The embassy had been closed in anticipation of the demonstration. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the only staff there were security personnel and Marine guards. He said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been briefed. She was en route to the United States with President Bush after an six-day trip to Africa.
McCormick said the United States had asked the Serbian government to help protect U.S. diplomatic facilities.
Police had not been protecting the building, but riot police intervened after the attack began, firing tear gas and driving armored trucks down the street to clear the crowd.
The storming of the building came during a state-backed rally to protest at Kosovo’s secession on Sunday attended by some 200,000 people, which was otherwise peaceful.
The rioters were mainly young men, some of whom wore balaclavas and scarves to hide their faces. They had attacked the building with sticks and metal bars and destroyed two guard boxes outside.
Protesters ripped some metal grilles from the embassy windows and also tore a handrail off the building’s entrance and used it as a battering ram against the main door.
The neighboring Croatian Embassy also was attacked.
More than a dozen nations have recognized Kosovo’s declaration of independence on Sunday, including the United States, Britain, France and Germany.
There has been unrest in Kosovo since the independence declaration. Hundreds of Serbs have launched attacks on border outposts, prompting NATO to reinforce the northern Serb-dominated part of Kosovo and take control of the borders.
The violence has sparked fears of sustained violence, with Serbian officials saying the attacks were in line with its attempt to contest Kosovo’s secession.
Ethnic Albanian separatists fought a 1998-99 war with Serbian forces, and an estimated 10,000 people were killed.
In areas of Kosovo where Serbs live surrounded by majority ethnic Albanians, Serb leaders urged Serbia’s government to tone down statements or risk endangering lives.
“Serbs from the north have brought other Serbs in Kosovo in a position to fear for their children and their lives, which is a very painful feeling — the fear of what your own people might do,” Kosovo Serb leader Rada Trajkovic was quoted Thursday as saying by the independent Serbian news agency FoNet.
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